EDF Health

New study: Homebuyers and renters take action when told they may have a lead service line

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director, and Lindsay McCormick, Project Manager

The Cornell/EDF study confirmed that potential buyers or renters report being much more willing to take action to replace LSLs when told they have one regardless of disclosure style. However, water testing information that shows levels below EPA’s lead action level may underestimate risk and undermine action on LSLs.

Today, EDF and collaborators at Cornell published a new study that provides insight into how disclosure policies can impact potential home-buyer and renter behavior. This effort builds on a report EDF published in 2017 grading state housing disclosure policies according to their ability to help homebuyers make informed decisions about lead service lines (LSLs) before they sign a sales contract. LSLs are pipes that connect homes to the water mains under the street and are a major source of lead in drinking water. Four states — Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania — and Washington, DC scored an A-. Twenty-one states scored a D or F. The remaining 25 states scored a B or C.

Our analysis was based on a presumption that if potential homeowners are told that a home has an LSL, many would negotiate with the property owner for its removal, whether by having the seller replace it or building the cost into the mortgage to fund the buyer’s replacement. This was a reasonable presumption that underlies why sellers are required to disclose property defects and environmental hazards in many states.

However, we were interested in testing that presumption and exploring how potential homebuyers and renters might respond differently based on how the information is disclosed by a property owner or home inspector. Our objective was to evaluate disclosure styles to assess if the different styles influenced respondents’ perceived risk of the LSL in a home and willingness to act. To conduct the survey, we partnered with Jeff Niederdeppe and Hang Lu of Cornell University’s Department of Communications who recruited 2,205 participants online and gave them one of three scenarios to consider and advised them it would cost $1,000-5,000 to replace the LSL. See Figure 1 below.

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$10 in benefits for every $1 invested – Minnesota estimates benefits of lead service line replacement

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) released a report estimating that investing $4 billion in virtually eliminating lead in drinking water over 20 years would provide societal benefits of more than $8 billion. The state agency only counted the societal benefits from avoiding the loss of IQ points due to children’s exposure to lead.

Replacing lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes that connect a building’s plumbing to the water main under the street – yielded the greatest benefit with an investment of $0.228 to $0.365 billion yielding $2.118 to $4.235 billion in benefits. Replacing lead fixtures and solder had a lower, but still significant, return on the investment.

Based on this analysis, MDH recommended as high priority that the state conduct an inventory of LSLs and that LSLs be removed “at a measured pace” of 20 years. It also recommended undertaking as a medium priority an awareness campaign focused on the danger of lead in drinking water to formula-fed infants younger than nine months old and as a low priority a general public information campaign to prompt homeowners and renters to take action if they have an LSL.

The agency, which includes both the state’s drinking water protection program and its lead poisoning prevention program, prepared the report in response to a provision in a state appropriations law passed in 2017. The report is important because it is the first state assessment we know of, and it reports an impressive return on the investment of more than $10 for every $1 invested in LSL replacement. For these reasons, we took a close look at the analysis and the underlying assumptions.

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New study: Using interactive online tools to publicize lead service line locations and promote replacement

By Sofia Hiltner, Rainer Romero, Lindsay McCormick and Tom Neltner

EDF study evaluates interactive online tools in three Ohio cities that help users know which addresses have a lead service line.

In 2016, EPA called upon states to work with drinking water utilities to make publicly available the location of lead service lines (LSLs, the lead pipes that connect the main under the street to buildings) via maps or other mechanisms. Ohio led the way with legislation requiring more than 1,800 utilities to submit static PDF maps that showed where LSLs were likely to be present and then posting the maps online. Three cities in the state took the effort a step further to communicate the information to their customers by posting online tools. In 2016, Cincinnati posted an interactive map of LSLs modeled after one posted by Washington, DC earlier that year. The next year, Columbus posted an interactive map and Cleveland posted a search engine enabling anyone to check the service line material at an address.

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City of Washington, DC requires lead pipe disclosure and tackles past partial LSL replacements

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Washington, DC estimates there are 48,000 lead service lines (LSLs) on private property, 46 percent of the total number of service lines identified by the District. While the District has not yet set a goal of eliminating LSLs, it has taken positive steps to assist residents in replacing LSLs. It has prioritized avoiding partial LSL replacements, which are likely to increase residents’ exposure to lead, especially in the months following the disturbance.

On January 16, 2019, the District passed a new law that takes additional positive steps. First, it requires property owners to disclose the presence of an LSL to potential homebuyers and renters. The city joins Cincinnati, OH and Philadelphia, PA in requiring disclosure to renters and New York, Delaware, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania in requiring disclosure to homebuyers.

Second, it redresses past partial LSL replacements by providing financial support to homeowners who did not replace the portion on private property when they were expected to shoulder the entire burden. This is the first city we have seen take this approach. The fiscal impact statement for the law also provides insight into the cost of LSL replacement; the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), the city’s utility, estimates the average cost to replace the portion on private property is $2,000 per line. The total cost of the law over four years if fully funded is $21 million.

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EDF considers potential health equity impacts of partial lead service line replacement

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Lindsay McCormick is a Project Manager.

“LSL replacement initiatives should address barriers to participation so that consumers served by LSLs can benefit equitably, regardless of income, race or ethnicity.”

– A founding principle of the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative

States and communities across the country are taking important steps to accelerate replacement of lead service lines (LSLs) – lead pipes connecting the water main under the street to homes and other buildings. As part of this progress, many programs have strictly limited the standard practice of partial LSL replacement – replacing only the portion of the LSL on public property, which commonly arises when rehabilitating the main and reconnecting the existing line. Partial replacement is likely to increase, at least temporarily, lead levels in drinking water in homes and may not reduce lead exposure in the long run.

The default approach for most water utilities rehabilitating their main has been to simply alert property owners to the risk of partial replacement and advise them to hire a contractor to voluntarily replace the remaining portion of the LSL on their property.

Other utilities have rejected this approach and gone further to protect residents. For example, Washington, DC offers to coordinate private side and public side replacement to reduce costs and make participation easier but still expects the property owner to pay for the private side. Others, such as Cincinnati, OH, have required full LSL replacement, providing a significant subsidy to the homeowner and allowing the cost to be spread over ten years through a property tax assessment. Indiana American Water and Philadelphia, PA go even further and pay for the cost of full LSL replacement out of ratepayer or capital improvement funds. States are acting too, with Michigan requiring utilities to pay the cost of replacement on private property and Wisconsin requiring cost sharing. For more examples, see our webpages recognizing communities and states that are leading the way.

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From villages to states, significant progress on lead service line replacement in 2018

Sam Lovell, Project Specialist and Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

We recently finished a round of updates to our webpages recognizing states and communities leading the way in efforts to accelerate lead service line (LSL) replacement across the country. As we start the New Year, we wanted to summarize the good news from 2018 and highlight some opportunities for more success.

Ninety-five communities are leading the way on LSL replacement programs:[1]

  • 6 communities have publicly announced that they have completely replaced all known LSLs.
  • 53 communities have publicly set a goal of eliminating LSLs on public and private property, totaling more than 300,000 LSLs. Ten of the communities are in Wisconsin; Indiana has one investor-owned utility, American Water, which operates 27 separate community water systems; Michigan has four communities; Colorado and Ohio have two; and Arkansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington have one.
  • 36 communities are publicly taking steps to replace LSLs but have not yet set a goal of full replacement. One third of these communities are from Wisconsin; seven from Illinois; and five or fewer from New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Iowa, and Kentucky.

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