The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton’s pledge to remove all lead from the U.S. in five years is just not possible

The mayor of Flint, Mich., which is struggling to cope with dangerous levels of lead in its drinking water, said on Feb. 9 the city would replace all residents' pipes and was counting on state and federal help to foot the estimated $55 million bill. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

The crisis in Flint, Mich. — site of Sunday night's Democratic debate — was a crisis centered on the tragic combination of corrosive river water and outdated lead pipes in the city. When Hillary Clinton called for the debate in Flint — to which Bernie Sanders quickly agreed — the point was clearly to both criticize the Republican governor of the state and to present ways in which Flint's lead problem could be addressed.

On Sunday night, lead was introduced as a topic immediately. A member of the audience rose to ask the Democrats if they would support a national effort in their first 100 days in office to remove all lead service lines in the country. Sanders said he'd quickly seek to test the nation's water systems and inform homeowners about the quality in their homes.

Clinton went further, as she herself said.

"I agree completely," she said. "I want to go further, though. I want us to have an absolute commitment to getting rid of lead wherever it is. Because it's not only in water systems. It's also in soil and it's in lead paint that is found mostly in older homes."

"We will commit," she continued, "to a priority to change the water systems, and we will commit within five years to remove lead from everywhere."

That's almost certainly impossible.

When the crisis in Flint first emerged, we noted that the city's history in the spread of lead throughout the United States was unique. Lead isn't only transmitted in water through lead pipes. It exists, as Clinton pointed out, in paint in homes. For decades, it was added to gasoline — an initiative of the auto industry that once made Flint prosperous. Once in gasoline, it spread throughout the environment, contaminating the dirt around roads and the houses adjacent to those roads.

Getting rid of those pipes alone within five years would be hugely difficult and massively expensive. In a 1990 report, the American Water Works Association found that there were nearly 10 million lead service lines and lead connections in the United States. The city of Louisville, according to a 2010 study, was spending $1.5 million to $2 million a year in 2008 to remove lead pipes.

That's one city.

But, again, Clinton went further.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that most housing built prior to 1978 uses some lead paint. According to the Census Bureau, there are nearly 70 million houses in the United States that meet that standard. Seventy million.

I can say from personal experience that removing that paint is not trivial. It means not only stripping and repainting every surface that has lead paint, but thoroughly cleaning up any paint chips and paint fragments, and any and all dust in the house. It's a massive undertaking that takes, at a minimum, days. And it would need to be done in 70 million houses.

The soil is a bigger problem still. The University of Minnesota has an overview of how to deal with potentially toxic soil. Here's how you tell if your soil is at risk:

The soil should be sampled by taking 6 to 12 subsamples from the area of concern. For play areas, sample to the depth to which the child has been exposed, usually one half to one inch depth. For garden soils the sampling depth should be from the surface 3 to 4 inches. Lead does not move to any great extent in soils and, unless mixing occurs, it generally stays concentrated near the soil surface. Mix the subsamples thoroughly in a plastic pail, remove about a one cup volume, and submit to a laboratory in a clean container. Lead determination in soils is expensive and not recommended on a routine basis.

(Emphasis added.)

The problem of lead in the United States is a problem for which there is no easy solution. At best, we've reached a stalemate with lead, doing our best to reduce our children's exposure to the metal, an effort that extends back to the late 1970s.

Which, incidentally, was when we realized that we needed to remove asbestos from the environment, too. Nearly four decades later, that effort continues. The city of New York still employs 300 people a year to test for the presence of asbestos.

Removing lead within five years is simply not feasible.