Virginia Tech Researcher Assesses Milwaukee Lead Lateral Strategy

Dec 16, 2016

Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou’s has thrown herself into the middle of drinking water issues for years. This week, the Virginia Tech researcher shared her insight with a group of concerned citizens in Milwaukee.

Her involvement began in 2001 when Washington D.C. faced a massive water crisis. “This was the most severe lead in water crisis that our country had ever seen, and that’s the moment I decided I will never stop working on this issue until we solve it,” she says.

Lambrinidou helped train the Virginia Tech team that shined attention on Flint, Michigan, when its drinking water became contaminated with lead.

She also served on a national work group that reviewed the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule. Yet Lambrinidou says the resulting revisions are not adequately stringent.

“The Lead and Copper Rule only requires utilities to treat the water enough to prevent large-scale, severe, city-wide contamination. The rule does not require water utilities to ensure the water in individual homes and school releases no lead,” she says.

Despite what Lambrinidou calls a regulatory vacuum that leaves citizens – especially the very young - at risk of lead contamination, she thinks Milwaukee could be heading in the right direction.

“When they do water main work or other street projects, and they encounter lead laterals as they’re digging up the streets, it is absolutely the right time to be removing those pipes,” the researcher says.

A ordinance passed this week by the Milwaukee Common Council cements that approach in Milwaukee.

Over the last few weeks, community partners have also helped distribute over 2,000 lead filters. Lambrinidou says kudos.

“Filtering seems to be a very good first level of defense, and then replacement of all lead-bearing plumbing is really necessary for the long-term,” she says.

Lambrinidou counts community engagement as another powerful tool and says she’s observing it in Milwaukee.

“Residents here in Milwaukee are taking charge by not only educating themselves, but educating the leadership with their leaders and when this happens, it’s the most promising time for change because it puts citizens at equal footing with their leaders, and it allows communities to demand change,” she says.

Lambrinidou says it takes an engaged citizenry to recognize the layers of complexity, such as the limitations of testing water at home.

“You can turn on a tap and fill up a glass ten different times and your water could be lead-free,” she says. Lambrinidou says the eleventh time, “You turn on your tap, and you fill up your glass, and you have a lead particle, an actual piece, it could be 100 percent lead.”

So while she applauds Milwaukee’s plan to gradually remove every inch of lead lateral beneath the city, Lambrinidou says risks lurk within homes, schools and businesses.

“It could be a lead solder, or lead from leaded brass. And that piece could contain astronomical amounts of lead that can even exceed lead concentrations in the abortion pills used in the 1900s,” she says.

For now, Lambrinidou says, what’s important for keep top of mind is that for the most vulnerable – the young, no amount of lead is safe.