Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Minnesota has a lead problem — a network of some 100,000 lead service pipes that carry drinking water to residents, along with other lead pipes and fixtures found in older homes.
The problem is not a new one, but now, thankfully, the state is moving to take action in a big way, with an assist from the federal government.
A $240 million grant program to find, remove and replace lead service lines has been authorized by the 2023 Legislature, and those funds will unlock additional funds from the federal Infrastructure Investment Act, which will provide an ongoing $43 million per year for five years to get the lead out of Minnesota's drinking water.
"No amount of exposure to lead is safe," Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, who carried the bill, said at the time of a vote that saw DFLers and Republicans join in a rare unanimous passage. "This is an issue impacting every corner of our state," she said, "and it's an issue where the solution is far less expensive than the cost of doing nothing."
This unified effort will serve Minnesota well for decades to come, assuring a healthier state. The biggest benefit? A literal brain boost. According to a 2019 Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) report, eliminating lead is projected to result in increases in residents' mental acuity and IQs. Lead, as we now know, is a neurotoxin for which there is no safe level of exposure, and young children are the most vulnerable.
Exposure at young ages can cause significant and lasting damage to children's brains, nervous systems, red blood cells and kidneys. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even "low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child's intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement."
But older children and adults are hardly immune. In adults, high lead levels have been linked to nerve damage, decreased fertility, higher blood pressure, poor muscle coordination and impaired vision and hearing.
Much has been written about the dangers of lead paint, and the documented cases of children eating the lead chips because of their oddly sweet taste. By 1978, lead paint was banned for residential use. Society has been much slower to act on the threat posed by lead that can leach into drinking water. In Minnesota, the primary danger comes from lead service lines, typically controlled by cities, and by a property owner's plumbing fixtures.
According to the MDH report, the state had about 100,000 lead service lines in 2019. (Not-so-fun fact: Use of lead in plumbing goes back so far and was so widespread that the word plumbing itself derives from plumbum, the Latin word for lead.)
You may think, well, we've lived with it this long, what's the harm? Two words for you: Flint, Michigan. Failure to properly contain corrosion there resulted in widespread exposure to elevated lead levels. When the Environmental Protection Agency collected 32 samples from Flint kitchens, every single sample came back higher than the EPA's "action level," while some shot past the threshold for hazardous waste.
Elizabeth Wefel of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, who advocated for this state's new effort, said the most serious challenges tend to be in poorer neighborhoods, but also older, pre-World War II housing stock, many of which are prized for their historical value and gracious architecture. She pointed to small cities such as Pipestone and Royalton that have "historical buildings all over the place" but may lack the resources to tackle widespread replacement.
In St. Paul alone, some 26,000 homes use lead pipes to bring in their drinking water. Wefel pointed to St. Paul as a city that "has its arms fully wrapped around the problem." Federal funds in 2022 allowed the city to get a jump-start on replacement. Left to homeowners, the cost can be prohibitively expense — up to $8,000 or more just for the portion of pipe on their property.
Those eligible for grants will include community public water suppliers, municipalities and supplier of other residential drinking water systems, along with anyone who qualifies for grants or loans under the federal Safe Drinking Act.
At the bill signing, Gov. Tim Walz, who had pushed for the funds in his 2023 budget, noted that "safe, clean drinking water is a foundational human need — and it is long past time we make it a reality for all Minnesotans." By investing in lead pipe replacement statewide, he said, "we're taking the burden off families and homeowners and improving the health and safety of Minnesotans in every corner of the state."
Of all the spending that occurred in the recently concluded legislative session, this effort to get lead out of Minnesota's drinking water may well prove the most consequential. It will take years of hard work and far more money even than what's been allocated. More progress will come every year, until lead poisoning hopefully becomes a relic of the past.