Key Takeaways

  • The infrastructure bill is a $715 billion bipartisan bill that would invest in roads, rail, public transit, and clean water over the next five years.
  • It seeks to remove all remaining lead pipes and service lines.
  • Lead exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, and lead to learning and behavioral problems.

Just last week, the House approved a $715 billion infrastructure bill that would invest in roads, rail, public transit, and clean water over the next five years.

This bill marks an early step in the lengthy process Congress will be undertaking over the next few months to pass large infrastructure legislation.

Part of this proposal, particularly the rules regarding water, could impact the health of local communities. The House-approved bill includes the removal of remaining lead pipes and service lines, which are responsible for contaminated water in homes and schools across the U.S. 

According to the White House, lead pipes continue to serve an estimated 400,000 schools and child care centers and 10 million homes.

Wendy Heiger-Bernays, PhD, clinical professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, tells Verywell that exposure to lead can lead to serious health consequences.

“What we know about lead is that it affects the developing brain,” Heiger-Bernays says. Research has previously found that children with elevated levels of lead in their blood experienced more severe neurodevelopmental effects.

The Health Consequences of Ingesting Lead

Higher rates of lead exposure have detrimental social impacts, especially during childhood, according to Diana Ceballos Ochoa, PhD, director of the exposure biology research laboratory and assistant professor in the department of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

“If a child is exposed at an early age, because lead is a neurodevelopmental toxicant, it can affect development and result in learning deficits, hyperactivity, behavioral issues, and contribute to violence,” Ochoa says. 

Exposure to lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, and create learning problems. This all leads to a decreased ability to focus and underperformance in schools.

While blood lead concentration levels have decreased over the past four decades in children, from 2007 to 2010, 2.6% of preschool children in the United States had a blood lead concentration greater than or equal to five micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that public health actions be initiated when the level of lead in a child’s blood reaches this number.

A one-unit increase in blood lead levels among boys increases their probability of incarceration from 27 to 74% and the probability that a child would be suspended from school by 6.4 to 9.3%.

“There is no level of lead—when ingested by a young child—[that] is considered to be safe,” Heiger-Bernays adds. 

She notes that, unlike lead, other chemicals have standards where only certain amounts are allowed in drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water is zero.

Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, professor at Simon Fraser University, tells Verywell that lead exposure not only has health implications for children but for pregnant women as well.

“Low birth weight and preterm birth are the consequence of elevations of their blood lead concentrations and coronary heart disease,” Lanphear says.

In Lanphear’s research, he discovered that lead was an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease deaths in the U.S. “We have underappreciated or even ignored the contribution of lead as a risk factor for coronary heart disease, despite evidence going back to the early 1880s,” he adds.

Lead Exposure Is Highest Among Communities of Color 

Lead exposure disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color, Heiger-Bernays notes. 

The data shows that low-income communities of color, particularly Black Americans, are more likely to be concentrated in areas with older housing that may be in a state of disrepair and contaminated with lead.

Black children are about twice as likely to have blood lead levels above 5 µg/dL compared to White children, and more than five times as likely if they live in housing built between 1950 and 1977. Communities of color are also at higher risk for lead exposure due to segregation and the lack of access to safe and affordable housing.

What This Means For You

Because lead is odorless and tasteless, some states provide free lead testing kits. To check whether your state provides a testing kit, visit your state’s Department of Environmental Protection. 

The Infrastructure Bill Can Help

Although pipe removal can be costly, around $45 billion according to this recent proposal, Heiger-Bernays says that there are economic benefits.

The developmental effects that can occur to a child as a result of lead exposure, Heiger-Bernays explains, can be costly down the line. 

“That child is going to require additional social service assistance in school,” Heiger-Bernays says. “That’s very costly.” The child may also need additional social services outside of school as well.

“It will have an impact especially in underserved communities, where children live in older housing,” Lanphear adds. While the infrastructure bill is not an end-all solution, removing lead pipes can have a cumulative impact on communities disproportionately exposed to lead.

“By removing lead in our pipes, we can decrease the behavioral and learning disabilities in all children in this country,” Heiger-Bernays says.

But removing lead pipes cuts back at just one source of lead exposure. The dangerous contaminant can also be found in lead-based paint used in homes built before 1978 and soil contaminated from industrial waste like leaded gasoline.