As a native Floridian, I am always eager to pass along good news about our state. That’s especially true these days when there’s so much of the other kind — soaring property insurance rates, no affordable housing, a governor who got outfoxed by a mouse, etc.
That’s why I frequently point out that our beaches are ranked among the best in the country and our state parks have won four national awards. I also like to tell folks that we have some of the world’s most interesting wildlife. Alligators, for instance, which have been known to catch crooks and are likely to pop up out of a golf course water hazard and eat your ball.
Get ready to cheer for a new recognition: Woo-hoo, Florida’s No. 1! … in lead pipes.
Wait, that’s not so cool.
A new survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Florida has more lead pipes delivering water to its millions of households than any other state — even more than industrial ones, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
They based this finding on a statistical survey of 3,629 public water systems in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. This is “the largest and broadest scope effort” since the agency began such surveys in 1995.
“Some 9.2 million lead pipes carry water into homes across the U.S., with more in Florida than any other state,” PBS reported in a story on the survey. The EPA survey found that Florida had an estimated 1.16 million pipes made of lead, which is 12 percent of the nationwide total.
The EPA is tracking lead pipes because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health, even at low exposure levels. Lead pipes can poison the water, leading (ba-dum-bum!) to such effects as higher blood pressure, decreased kidney function, and brain damage.
All over the nation, people read this news item, slapped their foreheads, and said, “Brain damage?! THAT explains why Florida’s so dang weird.”
Children are particularly at risk from lead contamination because it harms their healthy growth and development. You’d be better off feeding your kids a daily diet of Coca-Colas than giving them lead-tainted water.
I asked an EPA spokesman how Florida wound up leading the lead list. The reply via email said, “In response to the survey, water systems in Florida reported a high number of lead service lines and a relatively low proportion of unknowns compared to the rest of the nation. “
In other words, the people who deal with Florida’s water supply the most are the ones who identified this hidden peril. Have they also informed their customers? Not that I’ve heard.
Still, it’s in keeping with the Florida water news I’m grown accustomed to reading recently.
Florida’s rivers, lakes, springs, bays, and estuaries are a big attraction for our many visitors, but our careless handling of waste has put all of these waterways in peril.
Pollution frequently closes our beaches to swimmers. Meanwhile, the pollution fuels toxic algae blooms that have killed thousands of acres of seagrass beds, which leads to the starving of our manatees.
How bad is our pollution problem? A WalletHub survey this week found that Florida ranks 40th out of the 50 states for water quality and 35th for being friendly to the environment.
We’re so desperate to get rid of this nasty stuff, we keep pumping unwanted liquids underground, based on the highly scientific principle of “out of sight, out of mind.” We do that despite the risk to the aquifer that supplies most of our water. Just last week, for instance, Manatee County started injecting treated waste underground from the old Piney Point phosphate plant.
Now we learn that even the pipes carrying the drinking water to our homes are full of a deadly chemical. As our state gets warmer and warmer due to climate change, we need more water to drink, except now it turns out the water may be bad for us.
This is not the kind of thirst trap we crave in Florida.
Just writing this is making my throat dry. As the Queen of Funk, Chaka Khan, warned us: “You never miss the water till the well runs dry.”
A Lead Pipe Cinch
Lead has a long association with plumbing. You could say they’re synonymous.
The word “plumbing” comes from the Latin term for lead: “plumbum.” That’s because the Romans kicked off the whole lead pipe industry. They used lead to make not just pipes for drinking water but also plates, silverware, cooking utensils, and urns for wine.
You can see why some scientists contend that the real cause for the collapse of the Roman Empire wasn’t moral turpitude or the barbarian hordes who invaded but the effects of having so much lead in their diet.
“The first century A.D. was a time of unbridled gluttony and drunkenness among the ruling oligarchs of Rome,” a 1995 EPA Journal story reported. “The lead concealed in the food and wine they devoured undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the outbreak of unprecedented epidemics of saturnine gout and sterility among aristocratic males and the alarming rate of infertility and stillbirths among aristocratic women. Still more alarming was the conspicuous pattern of mental incompetence that came to be synonymous with the Roman elite.”
Wait, does this mean all of Florida’s lead pipes are located in Tallahassee? That would explain the Legislature’s pursuit of silly stuff like protecting Confederate monuments and cracking down on drag shows when there are much more important issues that need attention.
Anyway, despite the fall of Rome, the fledgling American empire embraced the use of lead as well — at first.
“Lead pipes for carrying drinking water were well recognized as a cause of lead poisoning by the late 1800s in the United States,” one scientific study reported. “By the 1920s, many cities and towns were prohibiting or restricting their use. To combat this trend, the lead industry carried out a prolonged and effective campaign to promote the use of lead pipes.”
To do this, the study noted, the industry recruited public officials to tout lead’s superiority, and “published numerous articles and books that extolled the advantages of lead over other materials.”
Gee, sounds just like the modern oil and gas industry battling back against efforts to switch to alternative fuels like solar and wind. The industry dispatches its pet politicians — like House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Koch Industries — to parrot its talking points about how weaning ourselves off oil and gas is somehow un-American.
Speaking of gas, the folks developing fuel for the fledgling auto industry in the 1920s added lead to gasoline so the engines would run more smoothly. It worked great. Too bad it poisoned everyone, including the General Motors engineer who came up with the idea, Thomas Midgley Jr. Employees at the first plant to manufacture leaded gasoline suffered insanity and hallucinations and several died from the effects, but the company repeatedly swore it was safe.
The gasoline additive resulted in widespread human exposure to lead which, according to a Florida State study published last year, lowered the IQ of about half the population of the United States. Maybe this explains why so many people fell for Sen. Joe McCarthy’s outlandish lies, or found the comedy of Jerry Lewis absolutely hilarious.
Lead was banned as a gasoline additive in 1996 — but only for cars and trucks. Leaded gasoline is still allowed for aircraft, race cars, farm equipment, and marine engines. Try not to inhale any exhaust fumes when you’re around those vehicles, OK? I’d tell you to wear a mask, but our Legislature probably won’t allow that.
Our water supply got protection earlier, in 1986. That’s when Congress prohibited the use of lead pipes, solder, or flux in public water systems or plumbing in facilities providing water for human consumption.
Even after lead pipes were banned, though, some shady folks still used them, figuring they wouldn’t get caught because the evidence was literally buried out of sight. Meanwhile, a lot of lead pipes were already in use all around the country.
And it’s a lead pipe cinch that nobody was out digging them up so they could be replaced by something safer.
What made all this a big deal is something that happened in a Michigan town named Flint in 2015. A switch to sucking water from a local river led (pun alert!) to residents reporting that they could see changes to their tap water’s color, smell, and taste.
Turns out the Flint River water was working on the city’s old lead pipes and making them release high amounts of the deadly metal. Michigan officials, in tones similar to Kevin Bacon in “Animal House,” kept insisting the water was just fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine, all is well, remain calm!
But experts from Virginia Tech reported finding such high levels of lead in the water they said the city should immediately stop drawing water from the river. Criminal charges and lawsuits galore followed.
One of the people I contacted about the EPA report on Florida pipes was the scientist from Virginia Tech who blew the whistle on the lead problem in Flint, Marc Edwards. When I told him why I was calling, he flat-out refused to believe me. Florida? No way.
I sent him a link to one of the stories about it. He emailed me that he thought the EPA may have made an erroneous assumption that led to an overcount.
But when I contacted an organization called Water Defense, which describes itself as “an information hub for businesses, consumers, and travelers to get information about water,” the response was, basically, “Well DUH.”
“No, we’re not surprised about this,” spokesman Shawn Shafai said, explaining, “Florida has been identified in past reports and overall industry knowledge around the use of lead pipes.”
I also contacted Alison Adams, who holds a Ph.D. in civil engineering and is the former chief technology officer of the regional utility known as Tampa Bay Water. She pointed out something that the EPA hadn’t mentioned.
“Lead pipes were used in the building industry, not in public water supply,” she explained. “A utility’s responsibility ends at the meter to a home. Lead pipes were used between the meter and in homes or businesses, including schools, as a matter of construction.”
In other words, when we look for who’s responsible for this, we should look to the builders and developers. But they’d probably order their flunkies in the Legislature to tell us all to pipe down.
Department of Environmental Head-Turning
One organization that’s been banging on the pipes like Tony Orlando’s upstairs neighbor to get people to pay attention to this issue is an environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Two years ago, the NRDC issued a press release with the alarming headline, “Lead Pipes Are Widespread and Used in Every State.”
“After conducting a survey of these lead pipes in the United States, NRDC estimates that there is a range of 9.7 million to 12.8 million pipes that are, or may be, lead, spread across all 50 states, including those that claim to have none,” the press release said.
The scary part: Officials in 23 states “informed us that they do not track the number of lead pipes and could not provide us with those estimates.” The organization noted that this widespread ignorance was “concerning,” a bureaucratic euphemism meaning, “I’m totally freakin’ out here, man.”
That means, the organization said, that it’s unlikely that these states have been able to adhere to the EPA’s anti-lead health standards. So far, they have suffered no penalty for that failure to protect the health of their citizens.
I talked to the NRDC water expert who surveyed the states, Erik Olson. He said when his organization contacted Florida’s Department of Environmental Head-turning, er, excuse me, Protection, the reaction he got was like an intelligence report from Sgt. Hans “I Know Nothing” Schulz on “Hogan’s Heroes.”
“Florida’s drinking water program does not track lead service lines and we have not developed estimations,” the DEP’s response said.
Lacking any DEP information, the NRDC, in its survey, made an estimate that Florida was nowhere near the top of the lead-pipe pack. That’s why Olson found the EPA survey surprising.
“How this number went from ‘we don’t know’ to ‘we’re the No.1 in the country’ I don’t know,” he told me.
I think the difference is the EPA asked Florida’s utilities, not the DEP, for information. I can see why.
I tried contacting the DEP, but as is often the case these days, that taxpayer-funded state agency chose not to reply to an inquiry from this taxpayer. Maybe we should call it the DEA — “Don’t Expect Answers.”
Bringing Us Billions
Here’s one piece of good news about Florida’s exalted status as King of Contaminated Pipes: That EPA survey will be used to steer billions of dollars from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to finding and removing all those lead pipes.
Previously, a state’s share of lead pipe replacement funds was based on its general infrastructure need and didn’t consider how many lead pipes the state had. This new law instead targets the states with the most lead pipes, meaning billions will be spent here to dig up and replace these sources of poison.
You hear a lot of politicians these days talking about how much they care about our children. That’s why they’re so darn worried about the effects of drag shows and dirty books. But they don’t seem to care one whit about the danger facing our kids from toxic metals in our water pipes.
Frankly, I find the hypocrisy kind of draining. I think I need to pour myself a cool drink — but not water. Maybe I’ll have a Coca-Cola instead. Might be healthier.
The Phoenix is a nonprofit news site that’s free of advertising and free to readers. We cover state government and politics with a staff of five journalists located at the Florida Press Center in downtown Tallahassee.