Community Health

The remaining 4,600 lead water lines going into Louisville residents’ homes will be replaced by 2020. That’s according to Louisville Water, which announced last month that it will spend $10.9 million next year in the effort to replace these lines, which represent about 1.6 percent of the total service lines in the county.

The replacements are especially important because lead is toxic and can lead to serious health issues if ingested by children. The Louisville Health Equity report released Thursday showed more than 60 percent of children under the age of six that were tested had levels of lead in their blood that raises health concerns. Those children were tested between 2011 and 2016 by the Department of Public Health and Wellness.

The majority of places where kids tested positive for concerning lead levels were in neighborhoods in the southern and western parts of Louisville, as well as downtown.

Though lead pipes leading into the home are only part of why a child might test positive for lead, they can contribute to built-up levels from old lead paint that comes off walls and pipes within a house. And kids are much more vulnerable than adults.

“Since kids are still developing, lead is easily picked up in their bodies, it’s confused by the body as calcium. It is absorbed quickly and can lead to damage to their brain, their nervous system, cause a loss of IQ points, lead to ADHD and other issues with paying attention,” said community health coordinator Elise Bensman, who works on the city’s lead poisoning prevention project.

John Cullen, the owner of Louisville company Lock-up Lead, says lead poisoning damage is very hard to correct.

“Lead is a cumulative poison, it’s absorbed into the body,” he said. “And the body doesn’t have a mechanism to get rid of it.”

Louisville Water spokeswoman Kelley Dearing Smith said the city’s water is treated as to not pick up lead in pipes — the lack of treatment in Flint, Michigan’s water system was identified as the issue that lead to the large-scale lead poisonings there in 2014 and 2015.

“It starts at the treatment plant. We have to make sure the chemistry in the water is balanced, so lead cannot dissolve into a pipe,” Dearing Smith said. “And then the second step is eliminating our service lines. The third part is education, so letting homeowners know what we find on their side of the property.”

However, Louisville Water is not responsible for replacing lead lines that are on an individual homeowner’s property. Those are the homeowner’s responsibility, though the water company will test your water for free if there are concerns.

Rather than lead pipes, in Louisville and in the United States, lead paint is the largest source of lead poisoning. Because lead-based paint was used in homes for decades, homes built before 1978 likely have old lead paint.

The risk of lead poisoning increases as the paint peels, cracks, or is worn down, according to the Health Equity report. Families who rent must rely on the landlord or homeowner to eliminate the hazard. And for families who own their own homes, remediation can be costly.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.