Some Saint Paul residents are learning about their potential lead exposure for the first time although it's not a new issue. The Saint Paul Regional Water Services has been working to remove lead pipes for at least two decades. The issue of lead piping is also not unique to Saint Paul as infrastructure nationwide is outdated. However, the issue resurfaced last month when Saint Paul and Ramsey County residents were alerted that tests from a small sample area revealed elevated lead levels in the drinking water.
“Any lead in the water is an issue,” says Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.
While there is a lot of information available online, residents we spoke to say it's difficult to understand the scientific jargon and overwhelming to navigate how to keep their families safe. It can especially be overwhelming for those who are expecting or have young children. Here are seven facts about Saint Paul’s water all residents need to know:
1. How do I find out if I have lead in my water?
2. Where’s the lead coming from?
According to Mayor Carter the water leaving the plant does not contain lead. The source of the toxic metal is old lead pipes that carry the water from the main line into homes. About 28 percent of Saint Paul’s homes still have lead pipes, according to the Saint Paul Regional Water Services (SPRWS). “If the question is: What is the water like that leaves our water processing facility? That's incredibly clean water… If the question is: What is the water like that comes into our homes in our city? Well then, that depends, frankly, largely upon our socioeconomic status,” said Mayor Carter.
3. How many Saint Paul homes are impacted?
According to SPRWS, the toxic pipes are widespread and impact the majority of the city. The city of Saint Paul serves 96,000 homes, about 26,000 of them have lead pipes that are expected to be fixed under the Mayor’s 10-year plan. This year they tackled four corridors. In an interview with staff at Power 104.7, Deputy Director Racquel Vaske at SPRWS said “About 9000 of those… still have lead on our side, and therefore it's a full lead service line," Vaske explained. “The other 15,000 are just partials, it's just on the property owner side.”
Red indicates both private and city pipes are lead, yellow indicates a partial lead service (either private or public). Gray indicates it's not known (Image courtesy of SPRWS) It is believed that the majority of homes affected were built before 1926 and in some cases after.
4. What are the impacts of drinking water with lead?
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, drinking, breathing, touching, or eating lead can cause damage to the brain, kidneys, and central nervous system. Lead is especially harmful to children, who are at high risk of stunted development, and learning, hearing and behavioral problems.
5. Lead pipes in Saint Paul is not a new or unique issue
Three weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a $30 billion-dollar nation-wide plan to replace an estimated 9.2 million lead service lines over the next ten years. This is a strong signal from the Biden Administration that St. Paul is not the only city dealing with old lead water pipes. “This is not a new issue at all. We were talking about this when I was on the city council back in 2008, 2009,” the Mayor said. In March of 2022, Mayor Carter adopted a resolution to launch a ten-year initiative in St. Paul to eliminate all of the lead pipes out of the city’s water systems.
6. If it’s not a new issue, why is it being addressed now?
The Environmental Protection Agency routinely requires the city to conduct water purity tests. Any time the lead test results are above the 15 toxic metal parts per billion threshold, the city is required to inform its residents. So, while it has been known for at least 20 years that lead pipes in Saint Paul could be affecting drinking water, last month was the first time since 2000 that results for a sample test area in Saint Paul exceeded EPA guidelines.
7. How to reduce lead exposure while waiting for water test results
Free water test kits are available (as noted above); the results usually take 4-6 weeks. In the meantime, here’s a few things you can do to reduce your potential exposure.
Get your and your family’s blood levels tested (these results are quicker)
Use bottled water
If you must use tap water, clean your aerator (faucet filter), use cold water (which absorbs less lead than hot water) and let the water run for 3-5 minutes before use
If you receive your results back and your water contains an elevated lead level, seek medical treatment for you and your family. You can also contact SPRWS about its free pipe replacement program. While you wait for your pipes to be replaced you can also follow the list above.
If your blood levels are high, but you do not have lead in your pipes, you may be exposed to lead in some other form, such as lead paint.
For additional resources call the SPRWS at 651-266-6850 or visit the city’s website at: Stpaul.gov/lead-free