Paris, Lead and Sparkling Water

In the latest in a series of efforts to make the French capital green, the city of Paris is now offering residents free sparkling water to try limit over consumption of plastic bottles.(I)

“We chill the water between 6 and 8 degrees Celsius (42.8 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit),” said Philippe Burguière, the spokesman for Eau de Paris, “and then we inject carbon dioxide into regular tap water to make the bubbles thin and tasty.”

Separate faucets provide a still version of the beverage, both refrigerated and un-refrigerated, and again pumped directly from the city’s own public water supply.

The new water fountain is part of an operation “aimed at promoting tap water in a country where we invest a lot to preserve its quality,” Burguière added.

Half of the city’s public water supply comes directly from underground springs located up to 160 kilometers away. The other half is pumped from the rivers Seine and Marne then filtered, treated and tested to make it 100 percent safe for consumption.

But is it safe?

Technologies for treating drinking water have advanced significantly over the past century. Today the availability of  clean, safe drinking water is taken for granted in the developed world. However, even this highly treated water is subject to degradations in quality once it leaves the treatment plant and enters the distribution system.(2)

By the time water reaches the consumer, its quality might be very different from what it was when it left the plant.(3)

Public drinking water systems in the United States supply 34 billion gallons per day of drinking water to approximately 87 percent of U.S. households. The drinking water infrastructure that helps provide this water contains more than 50,000 community water systems that rely on water treatment plants and distribution systems that include over one million miles of pipes.

However, all these systems are aging and there is a huge repair and replacement deficit. In New York City, for example, there are water mains that are more than 150 years old, and they rupture with regularity.(4)

This is dangerous because pathways for the entry of contaminants into distribution systems include contamination during the installation or repair of water mains. Chemical contamination can occur in the distribution system as a result of corrosion reactions, the accumulation of contaminated sediments, and the intrusion of chemical compounds into the pipes.


In the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States, lead was often used in the construction of water service mains.  Service mains were the pipes that connected individual homes and apartment buildings to street mains.(5)

The decision to install a service main was three dimensional, involving a choice about material, a choice about internal lining, and a choice about size. Services were made of iron, steel, or lead; if iron or steel, they were sometimes lined with lead or cement (later asbestos cement); and they typically ranged in size from three-quarters of an inch to one-and-one-quarter inches in diameter.

As for the the cost of materials, a small (three-quarter inch) iron or steel pipe that was neither galvanized nor lined was the best choice. The primary drawback of this choice, however, was that small untreated iron pipes were subject to corrode sooner than other alternatives.

Because replacing broken service mains often required digging up paved streets and working around other infrastructure such as gas and sewer mains, the costs of reduced main life often overwhelmed whatever savings were generated from reduced materials costs.

Lead was a relatively soft and pliable metal and was the best choice. Malleability reduced labor costs by making it easier to bend the service main around existing infrastructure and obstructions. (6)

Health Concerns

In 1916, the journal, Engineering News, reported;

The most serious objection to the use of lead pipe for services is the possibility that the water may dissolve enough lead from the pipe to cause lead poisoning. It is certain that many cases of lead poisoning have been caused by the use of lead services. On the other hand, lead has always been used for services in most of the large places without any unfavorable effects. (7)

By the turn of the twentieth century, cities throughout the United States were using lead service mains to distribute water. For example, in 1900 the nation’s five largest cities–New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Saint Louis, and Boston–all used lead services to varying degrees.

In all, 70 percent of all cities with populations greater than 30,000 in 1900 used lead service mains exclusively, or in combination with, some other type of main.

Lead water pipes were not unique to America.  They were used in many large cities in Europe and Africa including, but not limited to, Aberdeen; Amsterdam; Berlin; Brussels; Cape Town; Dublin; Edinburgh; Glasgow; Haarlem; Leipzig; Lisbon; London; Madrid; Paris and Sheffield. (8)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in 2000;

Despite the fact that many of these mains are still in use and that up to 20 percent of all lead exposure in young children comes from drinking water, the significance of lead service mains is poorly understood and there exists little scientific evidence that would allow us to precisely measure their effects on human health.(9)

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that as many as 5 percent of all American children suffer from sub-clinical lead poisoning.(10)

Lead poisoning, while treatable to some degree, does irreparable damage to young children’s neurological systems, including reduced IQ, behavioral disorders and loss of control of muscles. It threatens the unborn since it passes directly through the placenta, leading to stillbirths and birth defects and, in breastfeeding, passes freely to babies through mothers’ milk. (11)

The CDC reiterates a key message:

No safe blood level has been identified and all sources of lead exposure for children should be controlled or eliminated. Lead concentrations in drinking water should be below the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion.

Edwin van Wijngaarden, Ph.D. says;

My interest is in exploring the long-term implications of lead exposure.  Lately, a lot of the information about lead and its toxicity has focused on children. We do know that in young people it can cause acute illness and behavioral problems. But what is under appreciated, I believe, are the chronic health effects.

The immune system appears especially sensitive to environmental contaminants such as lead and cadmium. While the overall effects of lead on antibody production appears to be minimal, if lead dosage and exposure are sufficient it can lead to depressed total antibody levels. More importantly, low level lead exposure interferes with antibody isotype production eliciting a more significant health risk, say Dietert & Piepenbrink 2006; Fowler 2009. (12)

Metal toxicants which affect the immune system may contribute to an increased incidence of autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases and cancer. In the recent past, there has been a growing concern among health and environmental scientists on the impact of environmental exposure to heavy metal lead on human health.(13)

There are a number of cancers that still are lacking good explanations as to their cause. A cancer report from Socialstyrelsen states that the causing mechanisms behind bladder-, breast-, colon- and prostate cancers still are unknown.(14)

Scientists have suspected for years that lead is a carcinogen, which passes through the blood-brain barrier, making the brain especially sensitive to the toxic effects of lead.  When Van Wijngaarden followed nearly 318,000 people and their cancer rates for nine years, he found 119 brain cancer deaths. The death rate among people with jobs that potentially exposed them to lead was 50 percent higher than unexposed people.(15)

In the District of Columbia (DC), approximately 23,000 homes have lead-based water service pipes. As part of its lead-in-water testing program, DC Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) expanded testing to include homes with lead service pipes extending from the water main to the house. By late January 2004, results of the expanded water testing indicated that most of the homes tested had water lead levels that were above the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

In 2003, Dr. Marc Edwards noticed unsafe lead levels in Washington, D.C.’s drinking water. His subsequent study revealed that the drinking water contained elevated lead levels from 2001 to 2003. WASA began disinfecting Washington D.C.’s drinking water with chloramine instead of chlorine in November 2000. The switch in disinfectant triggered the increase in the lead level of the city’s drinking water.  Chloramine produces less carcinogenic byproducts than chlorine because it is a weaker oxidizer. However, the use of chloramine created a different problem. Chloramine reduced the water’s oxidation potential. This causes the lead scales on the interior of the pipes to dissolve into the drinking water. (16)

Edwards’ findings contradict statements made by D.C. health officials. Since 2004, D.C. health officials have acknowledged that the city’s drinking water contained unsafe lead levels. However, they have regularly stated that they have found no evidence of negative health effects on the general public’s health.

With the estimated number of water main breaks in the U.S. and Canada since January, 2000 occurring at the rate of 700 per day, the number of breaks is now in the millions and one study found leakage from metal pipes costs U.S. consumers about $3 billion per year. (17)

Replacing the pipes would seem a sensible idea.  However, when the cost of replacing aging and failing water pipes in the United States over the next two decades is estimated at $1 trillion, it is easy to see why this is not forthcoming.18)

Instead, the EPA recommends three steps to minimize the amount of lead in drinking water.

  1. Households should flush their pipes before drinking the water. Because the amount of lead that dissolves into water is positively related to the time it sits in the pipes, running faucets for two minutes clears most lead-contaminated water.
  2. Households should use only cold water for drinking and cooking because hot tap water contains higher lead levels.
  3. Households should have their water tested to accurately measure its lead levels.

According to the EPA, testing is especially important for individuals and families living in large apartment complexes because flushing may not be effective in high-rise buildings with lead-soldered plumbing. (By the way, don’t forget to test for asbestos because the EPA reports major sources of asbestos in drinking water are decay of asbestos cement water mains.)

It is not clear how many families at the turn of the century were aware of these simple preventive measures, but we all adhere to the EPA’s recommendations nowadays, don’t we?


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