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What Can Kentucky Learn From Flint’s Lead Crisis?

Creative Commons

A new workgroup will begin meeting next week to assess Kentucky’s handling of lead in its drinking water systems and develop recommendations for best practices.

To be clear, they're not responding to an existing problem.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet formed the workgroup in response to the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan. After that city switched its drinking water source, thousands of children began showing signs of lead poisoning. The new water source was corrosive and wasn’t being treated with anti-corrosion chemicals. Because of the unbalanced chemistry, when the water ran through the pipes, heavy metals leached into it.

Lead is extremely dangerous for children; it builds up in bodies, and lead poisoning has been linked to numerous health problems, including developmental delays.

Kentucky’s group is made up of state regulators, representatives of water systems of all sizes, academics and others. Workgroup chair Greg Heitzman — formerly of the Louisville Water Company and Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District — said Kentucky is in good shape, with all of its water systems currently in compliance with federal regulations. But he said that could change at any time.

“Every time that you change water treatment methods, just like Flint did, you run the risk of upsetting the chemical balance,” he said. “That would be in the existing water supply and how it interfaces with any metallic surface.”

In Louisville, about 3 percent of service lines and 6 percent of private lines are made of lead. The Louisville Water Company isworking to replace all of the public lead lines by 2025, but private lines are the homeowner’s responsibility.

As long as the water system’s chemical balance doesn’t allow the pipes to corrode, lead pipes shouldn’t be a problem. But lead in water isn’t the only source of lead poisoning. Another major source is lead paint in older homes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps county-level data on lead poisoning in children. In Kentucky, it appears to be decreasing. In 2006, 22 counties had confirmed cases of lead poisoning. In 2014, it was only nine.

Blood Lead Levels Create bar charts

But in counties with either a high percentage of homes built before 1950 (which would be more likely to have either lead paint or lead plumbing) or a high percentage of low-income children, lead poisoning is still a threat.

Here's a map of Kentucky counties; the red counties have the higher percentages of older housing stock:

In this map, the red counties are those with the higher percentages of low-income children:

When it comes to the commonwealth’s water supply, Heitzman said the working group will issue recommendations for new protocols if and when Kentucky’s 409 public water systems decide to change their water source or technology — like Flint did.

"What we want to do is learn from Flint, Michigan,” he said.

Ultimately, he said the group’s work could be used to inform the federal Environmental Protection Agency as they work to update the nation’s lead and copper standards.

“We want to be on the forefront and say, ‘This is what we’ve learned in Kentucky, how can we take those best practices and integrate them into the rulemaking on the environmental regulation side,’” Heitzman said.

He said the group would likely finish its work in a few months.