NEW BEDFORD — Every day, city residents drink water that travels through toxic lead pipes buried beneath our feet.

An estimated 3,365 properties in the city are served by lead service lines, the pipes that connect each building to the water main in the street. They span the entire city, from the far reaches of the North End down to the tip of the peninsula.

Experts say it’s important to remove these dangerous pipes, but the city’s efforts to remove them have lagged in recent years. And homeowners who request a service line replacement are responsible for the full cost, which can add up to thousands of dollars.

Lead causes serious health problems. Children are particularly vulnerable — lead in a child’s blood can stunt their development, causing issues with learning and behavior. There is no safe amount of lead exposure, according to the EPA.

The hazardous metal can leach out of pipes without changing the color, smell, or taste of water. New Bedford chemically treats its drinking water to prevent leaching, but city testing data shows that small amounts of lead still find their way into the water supply.

“Even though corrosion chemicals slow down the rate of corrosion, they’re not completely preventing lead from entering into the drinking water system, which is hugely problematic,” said Maureo Fernández y Mora, associate state director for Clean Water Action Massachusetts.

The city has run a lead service line replacement program since 1999. But over the past few years, it has been replacing fewer and fewer service lines. Experts say that’s a problem.

“The reality is, if you’ve got a lead pipe, it needs to be replaced,” said Tom Neltner, who leads the Safer Chemicals initiative at Environmental Defense Fund.

A city spokesperson declined The Light’s request for an interview with city water officials, but Department of Public Infrastructure Commissioner Jamie Ponte wrote in an email that the pandemic and labor shortage issues were behind the decrease in service line replacements.

Ronnie Levin, a Harvard environmental health instructor, said she believes the city’s explanation.

“But you know what that means? It means try harder,” Levin said.

When the city replaces a lead pipe as part of its ongoing service line replacement program, the resident doesn’t have to pay. Property owners who want their service line replaced could choose to wait until the city gets around to their address, but the program isn’t expected to be complete for another decade.

The city couldn’t provide information on the timing and location of replacements, so it isn’t clear when any one property owner can expect to have their service line replaced for free.

When a resident specifically requests that the city replace their service line, they are obligated to pay the full cost. Half of it is due upfront, and the other half is added to the property owner’s water bill. Some may be eligible to pay the second half in installments, but the city doesn’t provide any grants or forgivable loans. Lead service line replacements can range from $1,200 to $12,300, according to the EPA.

Experts said the city’s policy discriminates against low-income residents.

“Not everyone has the money on the property owner’s side to actually replace that lead service line so that’s where we start to see huge equity gaps build, where low-income homeowners, renters, aren’t able to actually afford the cost of replacement,” Fernández y Mora said.

Putting the cost burden on property owners is a way for cities to wash their hands of responsibility for the risks posed by lead service lines, Levin said.

“As long as we can make lead someone else’s problem, then we don’t have to deal with it,” she said of the attitude some cities have.

Whether or not the city reaches its goal of finishing service line replacements in the next decade depends on funding, Ponte said. The city plans on applying for lead service line replacement funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but the money is offered on a first come, first served basis, and it has been available to Massachusetts water systems since July.

Maureo urged New Bedford to take advantage of the funding.

“This is a can we’ve kicked down the road for literally centuries,” he said. “There’s no reason why we need to wait any longer, and there’s a lot of help available.”

Children in New Bedford tested positive for elevated blood levels at more than double the statewide rate in 2020, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The city is on the department’s list of communities with a high risk of childhood lead poisoning because of its high poisoning rate, old housing, and low income levels.

Lead paint, which is common in homes built before 1978, is usually the culprit for child lead poisonings. But lead-contaminated water also poses a risk. Even low levels of lead in a child’s blood can lower a child’s IQ and cause behavioral problems.

Do I have lead pipes?

The Light has compiled a searchable list of properties identified as having a lead service line in the city’s data.

Even if your home doesn’t show up on the list, there’s a chance you could still have lead plumbing. The data that The Light obtained from the city is missing the addresses of roughly one in every 20 properties with a potential lead service line.

DPI Commissioner Ponte said that the city’s list is “dynamic,” and his office is still working to digitize its paper records on service lines. The digitization effort is about 90% complete, he said.

“We do our best to accurately account for lead services, but we cannot guarantee an error-free database,” Ponte wrote in an email. “The department makes every effort to update our inventory as service replacements are conducted or if the validation of an entry calls for a revision.”

The city’s records also don’t account for homes with lead plumbing beyond the service line, which can include faucets and fittings. The EPA didn’t fully ban lead plumbing materials until 1986 — the vast majority of New Bedford’s housing stock predates the ban.

What can I do to protect myself and my family from lead?

Even if your address does not appear on the city’s inventory of lead service lines, you can have your water tested for lead to be sure. The city provides tests for $17. For more information, you can call the DPI repair shop at (508) 979-1550.

If you have a lead service line or a test reveals lead in your tap water, there are ways to reduce your exposure. The CDC recommends using a filter that’s certified by the National Sanitation Foundation.

Lead concentrations increase as water sits in a pipe, so flushing your tap can also help. New Bedford water officials recommend running your water for 30 seconds to two minutes before using it for drinking or cooking. Always use cold water for drinking and cooking — hot water causes more lead to leach out, and boiling doesn’t do anything to remove lead.

Homeowners can contact the DPI repair shop at (508) 979-1550 for information on getting their service line replaced.

It’s also important to have children tested for lead in their blood. The Massachusetts Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Regulation requires children to be tested every year until they are 3, and again at age 4 in high-risk communities — which include New Bedford. Your child’s pediatrician can do the test or refer you to a lab.

Remember that paint can also be a source of lead in older homes. The state has a searchable database of lead inspection data and a list of certified lead inspectors.

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1 Comment

  1. When we were in the process of purchasing our home in New Bedford, we asked about lead pipes and were told by the city that the main to curb had been replaced. We paid to have the lead pipe from the curb to the house replaced, but now our home shows up here as having lead pipes from the main to the curb.

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