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Report: Residents in Kansas, Missouri get drinking water from lead pipes at high rates

By: - July 15, 2021 1:27 pm
with the computer system in 2019 at a drinking water treatment facility in Ellsworth County. The recommendation is the former employee of the water plant serve one year in jail. (Getty Images)

The Environmental Working Group released its latest database of drinking water quality information. (Getty Images)

People in Missouri and Kansas risk lead exposure from drinking water at greater rates than almost any other state, a new report found. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council released findings Thursday that as many as 12 million Americans may be receiving drinking water through lead pipes without realizing their water is contaminated. 

“There is no safe level of lead, which causes irreversible harm to people’s health, particularly for children,” a release announcing the report says. 

Missouri has the 6th most lead service lines, the pipes that carry water from water mains into residents’ homes, of any state in the U.S., putting it above the far more populous Texas. Only Illinois, Ohio, MIchigan, New York and New Jersey have more lead pipes than Missouri.

Adjusted for its population, it has the 4th highest number of lead pipes per 100,000 residents. Kansas is third on that list. 

“Drinking water won’t be safe until the country pulls the millions of lead pipes out of the ground found in every state,” said Erik D. Olson, the organization’s senior strategic director for health.

Lead pipes have been on the forefront of environmental concerns since Flint, Michigan, switched its water supply and failed to adequately treat the water, which led to residents drinking water contaminated with lead. 

The NRDC released the report as Congress considers President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which includes spending to replace every lead pipe in the country. The organization backed that proposal in its release. 

“President Biden’s American Jobs Plan is a historic opportunity to fix the nation’s lead pipe crisis,” Olson said. “Removing lead pipes will improve health and create jobs, starting in low-income communities and communities of color with the highest rates of lead exposure.” 

The NRDC estimates the United States has between 9.7 and 12.8 million lead pipes. The group estimates Kansas has 5,446 lead pipes per 100,000 residents. It estimates Missouri has 5,462. 

Seven other states have more than 4,500 lead lines per 100,000 residents, all in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest. They are Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan and Minnesota. The District of Columbia is also in that top 10. 

Children who are exposed to lead can suffer damage to their brains and nervous systems. Exposure is also linked to learning disabilities, shorter height, hearing loss and harm to their blood cells. Adults can develop cardiovascular diseases, and their reproductive systems and kidneys can be impacted.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.