Commonly installed from the 1920s through the '40s, lead pipes have health risks that have since been well-documented. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most exposure to lead comes from children ingesting paint chips or anyone inhaling dust. But they report that up to 20 percent of the problem is caused by lead in drinking water, a number that jumps as high as 60 percent for infants fed water-mixed formula.
"The health effects of lead are most severe for infants and children," the agency states of the invisible, tasteless and odorless hazard. "For infants and children, exposure to high levels of lead in drinking water can result in delays in physical or mental development. For adults, it can result in kidney problems or high blood pressure." Then, the EPA literature adds, "Lead is rarely found in source water, but enters tap water through corrosion of plumbing materials."
Some time ago, a few residents of the West University neighborhood, which was developed in the early decades of the 20th century, saw physical evidence that lead water pipes had once been used in the area. Concerned about it, this discovery was taken to a neighborhood association meeting.
"One resident discussed the issue with us," says WUNA president Robert Morrison, "but then we sort of dropped it."
Mitch Basefsky, public information officer for Tucson Water, indicates the utility is interested in hearing about situations like this.
"We'd rather get rid of all lead service lines," he says of the pipes that run from the meter out to the main water line. The utility is responsible for these pipes, while the household side of the meter is the responsibility of the property owner.
"There are no lead water mains left," Basefsky says, "and we don't know of any service lines, but our feeling is there are some out there in individual circumstances." Unfortunately, no maps exist that show where these pipes might be located.
If there are still some lead service lines in use, Basefsky believes the hardness of Tucson's water might be an advantage. It forms a scale inside the pipe, which reduces the likelihood that lead could leach into the water supply.
Basefsky also points out that it has been a 20-year policy of Tucson Water to, when possible, replace lead service lines whenever they are located. He adds that both the utility's construction crews and meter readers are instructed to be on the lookout for lead pipes.
"They are pretty obvious," because of their size, Basefsky stresses, "and our crews will replace them." If someone suspects they are served by a lead line, Basefsky encourages them to contact Tucson Water's customer advocate, David Schodroski, at 791-5945.
"We'll look into the situation and ask about the evidence," Basefsky says of the utility company's response, "and maybe excavate a little around the meter box."
While lead pipes might still be a problem in some of Tucson's older neighborhoods, the Tucson Water representative emphasizes that there are other, more likely causes of lead in drinking water.
"It is primarily because of lead in brass fixtures or in solder that it gets into the system," he says, of materials used in home construction up until the 1980s. "Water sitting overnight in a pipe can pick it up."
To monitor that possibility, EPA requires water companies to test for lead once every three years. Fifty volunteers who live in areas most likely to have a problem are sought to draw water from their tap early in the morning, and it is then analyzed. Basefsky says that based on these tests, Tucson Water has never found lead above the 15-parts per billion EPA standard.
According to a water company spokesman, the same was not true in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Because of a switch in chemicals to treat its water, which ended up causing severe problems, the nation's capital saw an enormous increase in the number of households receiving water with lead levels exceeding the federal standard.
In response to the public controversy that followed, D.C. water officials decided that during the next six years, all 23,000 household lead service lines would be replaced at an estimated cost of $350 million. In the meantime, the affected individuals have been supplied with free lead test kits, free water filters and free blood screenings for pregnant women and most children less than 6 years of age.
Tucson residents concerned about lead in their drinking water can pay to have it tested by a private company. If it is present, the Children's Health Environmental Coalition suggests four steps be taken to reduce the risk. They recommend using only cold water for consumption while also flushing pipes of any standing water. In addition, installing a filter and not using unfiltered water for boiling are also listed as ideas.
For his part, when informed of Tucson Water's position on lead service lines, WUNA president Morrison replied: "I'll take (the issue) up with the board. It sounds like something we need to work on."