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The ability to have clean drinking water is something most residents in the United States take for granted.  When you’re in a situation where your water isn’t clean, it’s colored, smells weird, whatever, you feel helpless.

This isn’t supposed to happen.  This is America!  Not India.  Not Haiti.  We’re supposed to have clean water.  

It’s hard to see contaminants in water with our eyes; things like lead and cryptosporidium aren’t visible to the naked eye.  

With the on-going crisis in Flint, Michigan, lead is a hot topic these days.  There is a lot of information out there about the problem, but very little information about the actions people who are living with lead water can take to protect themselves.

In this three-part series I’m going to address the history of lead in plumbing distribution, the science behind why Flint is now full of lead, and what actions people can take to remove lead from their water.  

Let’s get started.


The History of Lead in Plumbing

The History of Lead in Plumbing

Most of us know that lead is bad so it’s hard to fathom the possibility of there being lead in the water.  In fact, lead is one of the best studied toxic-substances and we know more about the negative health effects than almost any other chemical.  This abundance of information however is unfortunately due to lead’s predominate use throughout history starting in the Roman Empire and extending through the 1990s.  

In Plumbo Nos

The Roman Empire is credited with being the first regime to mass-distribute lead due to their massive mining operations.  Lead itself does not occur in an elemental state but is a by-product of silver and gold mining.  It is readily available, easy malleable, is resistant to corrosion, and is easy to melt at low temperatures making it an ideal material for creating products out of.  

The Romans used lead extensively.  The used it to create plates and silverware, cooking utensils, urns for wine, makeup, and indoor plumbing.  In fact, the word plumbing itself is derived from Latin.


That’s Latin for lead.  


Fond of bathing, the Romans constructed great aqueducts to transport water from miles away to baths and recreation centers.  They were the original plumbers, lead workers who were responsible for measuring and laying out pipe, soldering, installing, and repairing the infrastructure that moved water around cities such as Rome and Pompeii.  

It should be noted that not all plumbing was created out of lead, some were created using terra cotta pipes.

With the decline in the Roman Empire so came the decline in plumbing.  Bath houses came to be viewed as places of debauchery and cleanliness decreased in value.  

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s when diseases like typhoid and Cholera were rampant that the link between bacteria and disease was discovered by Louis Pasteur.  Plumbing, especially to keep clean water isolated from wastewater, became of increasing importance. 

The New World and Lead

Almost as soon as the first colonists settled in the United States the mining and smelting of lead began.  Lead was originally sought out for its use in ammunition and by 1621 the metal was being mined and forged in Virginia but it wouldn’t be until later that lead would be used to transport water.

Early water distribution systems were created using bored-out logs, usually from hemlock or elm trees.  In 1652 Boston unveiled the country’s first water distribution system using these hollowed out trees in order to provide water for firefighting and domestic use.  

There were several problems with using wooden pipes however.  Uneven ground would cause the pipes to sag, creating pockets of stagnant water that developed a woody taste over time.  As cities expanded more pressure was needed to move the water farther and farther and this would cause the wooden pipes to split.  

As wooden pipes ceased to be useful, a switch to iron was made.  The city of Philadelphia became a global leader in plumbing when it became the first city to distribute water using entirely cast iron pipes in 1804.  Other cities such as Chicago, New York, and Boston followed suit.  

As plumbing knowledge evolved, so did the ease of bringing water inside homes.  Instead of getting water from a pump in the street one could get water from a faucet inside your house.

 Designing piping to move water around cities was fairly easy and straightforward but when it came to connecting buildings to water mains things became more complex.  There were a lot of pipes and conduits in the streets so piping that was flexible was highly desirable.  

The connections from water mains to buildings are known as service lines and creating these pipes out of lead became the most practical solution for engineers.

Lead service line location

Lead in the 20th Century

By 1900, of the 50 largest cities in the United States all but six or seven of them has installed lead piping.  New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Saint Louis and Boston all used lead services to varying degrees.  

Many local building codes mandated that lead service pipes be used for constructing service lines.  Lead is more durable to corrosion than iron piping and many of the lead pipes that were being used in 1900 are still in use today.  

A committee on service pipes submitted a preliminary report to Engineering News, a journal of civil engineering and construction that was issued weekly, on the use of lead service pipes in 1916.  The report stated:

Lead is in many respects the most satisfactory material to use for service pipes. Its pliability and its comparative freedom from corrosive action make it almost ideal from a mechanical standpoint. The cost of lead pipe of sufficient thickness safely to withstand the pressure is more than the cost of many other materials used for service, but in a paved street the greater duration of life probably more than compensates for the extra cost, and in places where the streets are occupied by other pipes and conduits the ease of getting over and under these obstructions with a flexible pipe is a great advantage.

The article continues:

The most serious objection to the use of lead pipe for services is the possibility that the water may dissolve enough lead from the pipe to cause lead poisoning. It is certain that many cases of lead poisoning have been caused by the use of lead services.  On the other hand, lead has always been used for services in most of the large places without any unfavorable effects.

Engineers knew lead pipes were bad and could poison people but didn’t understand why in some areas people became poisoned and in others people were fine.

It seems to be practically impossible to determine definitely in advance what the effect of any water on lead pipe will be, as the laboratory results fail in many cases to show the action which will occur in actual practice.  Tests of service pipes in use for a considerable period are the only safe guides.

This highlights a key point in the use of lead pipes.  

Not all lead pipes pose a health risk.  

Not all lead pipes pose a health risk.

If the water chemistry is good, with a pH that’s close to neutral and not overly corrosive water, then lead pipes can be perfectly safe.  

In the 1930s copper pipes or galvanized steel pipes began to replace most of the lead pipes in residential plumbing.  Solder, a material that’s used to join together metals like copper pipe, still contained lead until it was banned for plumbing applications in the 1980s.  

The importance of lead dissolved from lead service lines has received little attention until now because over time oxidation created a protective coating along the interior of the lead pipes.  This limited the amount of lead that would leach into the drinking water and could be ingested.  

This brings us to today, where residents in Flint, Michigan, have been struggling with lead contaminated water since the summer of 2014.  

In a couple weeks I’ll be sharing the science behind how Flint became full of lead.  To be one of the first to know when the next installment is available please subscribe to my mailing list.