Young children and infants are particularly sensitive to the harmful effects of lead. Current statistics indicate that approximately one in three children in the world has elevated lead levels in their blood. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS
  • Opinion by Ahmed Rachid El-Khattabi, Aaron Salzburg (chapel hill, nc, us)
  • Interpress service

During the session, the various institutional partners formulated a vision to eliminate lead from all drinking water supplies by 2040. This vision, called the “Global Pledge to Protect Drinking Water from Lead” (short for Lead-Free Water Pledge), begins by outlining concrete steps to phase out lead leaching materials for new drinking water systems by 2030.

The pledge’s two-pronged approach recognizes the complexities of eliminating lead from drinking water systems. On the one hand, lead is a problem in existing systems. On the other hand, many new drinking water systems are being built as much of the Global South develops and urbanizes; these new systems are constructed with parts or components that contain and leak lead into the water.

As shown by efforts to address lead in drinking water in the United States, the first step of identifying areas affected by lead contamination is both economically and technically onerous. Because mitigation is more expensive than prevention, ensuring that new water systems are constructed to standards to prevent lead leaching is low-hanging fruit in the broader effort to eliminate lead from drinking water.

Lead in drinking water is a global concern

Globally, exposure to lead is responsible for a significant disease burden, accounts for an estimated 0.9 million deaths per year and 30% of developmental disability of unknown origin. Young children and infants are particularly sensitive to the harmful effects of lead. Current statistics indicate that approximately one in three children in the world has elevated lead levels in their blood.

Lead is rarely, if ever, found to occur naturally in bodies of water, such as rivers or lakes. Lead is also rarely present in treatment plants that leave water. Nevertheless, lead in drinking water is a global problem.

Lead in drinking water constitutes a significant part of a person’s exposure to lead in countries around the world. In the United States, lead in drinking water is a significant issue affecting households in nearly every state. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that drinking water may account for at least 20% of a person’s total exposure to lead; this estimate may increase by up to 60% for infants who mostly consume mixed formula.A 2021 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Examination of sub-Saharan water supplies found that nearly 80% of drinking water systems were contaminated with lead. Of these systems, approximately 9% of drinking water samples in several countries had lead concentrations exceeding the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline of 10 parts per billion (ppb).

Lead contamination of drinking water supplies is completely preventable: lead finds its way into drinking water from lead-containing plumbing materials used in drinking water systems. In particular, lead can leach into water from lead-based solder used to join pipes, lead-containing brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures, and wear and tear of old lead lines.

The regulations regarding lead in drinking water are insufficient

There is no safe level of exposure to lead. Even low levels of exposure can be harmful to human health and can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, cognitive impairments, inhibiting growth and impairing the formation and function of blood cells, among other harmful effects.

Many countries around the world have regulations to reduce or limit the amount of lead in drinking water. The European Union, China and Japan, for example, all have statutory limits of 10 ppb; Canada and Australia have published guidelines recommending limits of 5 and 10 ppb, respectively. In the United States, the EPA set the maximum contamination level for lead at 15 ppb.

Except for the United States, however, none of the existing regulations at the national level have goals to eliminate lead from drinking water. In 2022, the EPA issued Revised lead and copper rule (LCR) which sets the maximum contamination level target for lead in drinking water to zero. As part of the revised LCR, water systems must create lead service line inventories to better identify areas where they may lead to drinking water. However, creating this inventory has proven to be financially and technically burdensome for many water systems as it requires both a significant financial investment and access to personnel with technical expertise in GIS or data modeling.

Delivers on the promise

The Lead-Free Water Pledge is not the first global initiative to reduce exposure to lead. Notably, one of the most successful public health initiatives of the past century has been to eliminate the use of lead in gasoline. For context, lead was commonly used as an additive in gasoline since then 1920s when it was discovered that the addition of lead reduced engine knocking which made engines run smoother.

Although the harmful health effects of lead were almost immediately apparent, it took almost a century for global action to gain any meaningful momentum to eliminate its use. As of 2021, all but one country has banned the use of lead as an additive in fuels due to the concerted efforts of the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles and other like-minded organizations.

As illustrated by the effort to remove lead from gasoline, meeting the pledge to remove lead from drinking water by 2040 will require non-trivial efforts. First, countries must sign on to the pledge and commit to it as a priority. To date, three African countries—Ghana, Uganda, and South Africa—have made firm commitments to eliminate lead from drinking water by 2040. Although US policy is fully consistent with the Lead Free Water Pledge, they have not yet committed.

Second, there must also be a commitment mechanism in place to ensure that countries that sign the pledge take meaningful steps to eliminate lead in drinking water. National governments must establish systems to ensure that new treatment plants comply with international standards, support training and certification of professionals to oversee the construction of safe drinking water systems, ensure affordable access to fittings and other plumbing materials that meet standards for lead in drinking water, among others commitments.

The dual problem of both gaining momentum and implementing a commitment mechanism to ensure progress is not unique to the Lead Free Water Pledge: The 2023 UN Water Conference culminated in over 200 similar commitments, pledges or agreements.

Given that the next UN water conference of the kind that took place in March 2023 would not take place until 2030 (at the earliest), the need for spaces where decision-makers and researchers from different parts of the world work on specific issues, such as the elimination of lead from drinking water , can be used to come together to flesh out details, report on progress and hold each other accountable is essential.

A logical step in the right direction would be to take advantage of all ongoing meetings to create space for meaningful discussions and actions around lead. To this end, the UNC Water & Health Conference is ideally suited to serve as a space for follow-up on the Lead-Free Water Pledge and other commitments made at the UN Water Conference. The annual conference organized by the Water Institute every fall is already a gathering place for water sanitation and hygiene experts in both developing and developed countries.

As long as lead is in drinking water, we as a society are condemning millions (if not billions) of people to future health problems and reduced income opportunities for decades to come. The vision articulated by the Lead-Free Water Pledge is one of many necessary steps that we as a global community must take to ensure access to safe drinking water for people around the world. We are grateful for the commitments made by Ghana, Uganda and South Africa and are proud that Africa is taking the lead in addressing such a fundamental issue to ensure a more water secure future.

Dr. El-Khattabi is the Associate Director of Research and Data at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Salzberg serves as director of the Water Institute and the Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service