Minnesota lawmakers hear dangers of lead water pipes, ammunition
The bills would provide $30 million to replace water lines in homes and ban some hunting ammunition.
ST. PAUL — More than 40 years after the U.S. started to phase lead out of gasoline and paint because of its destructive health impacts, especially on children, lead poisoning remains an ongoing problem for both human and wildlife health.
That was the message given to Minnesota lawmakers Wednesday during a virtual meeting of the Minnesota House Preventive Health Policy Division at the Capitol in St. Paul.
Representatives heard testimony on two bills already introduced that would help homeowners pay to replace lead water pipes in their homes and to require hunters to use nontoxic, lead-free ammunition.
Lead not only restricts brain and nerve development in children and fetuses, but it is also known to cause cancer as well as heart and nerve damage in adults. Dr. Zeke McKinney, a Minneapolis physician and president of the Twin Cities Medical Society, said lead exposure and its impacts can never be reversed but can almost always be prevented.
“There is no safe level of lead exposure for anybody,” McKinney said.
HF 2650, a bill introduced by state Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, would offer $30 million annually to Minnesota homeowners in grants to replace lead service lines that connect their home with city water pipes. It’s those lines where drinking water tends to pick up high levels of lead, including in many older homes in Duluth.
Tests last summer showed that 30% of Duluth homes failed to meet current federal lead standards for lead in water and nearly 50% failed new, stricter guidelines coming into place in 2024. The problem occurs when water sits in the old lead pipes overnight. City officials said it would cost an estimated $30 million to replace all of the lead service lines in Duluth homes. Other cities statewide face similar problems.
The bill seeks to have all lead water service lines in Minnesota replaced by 2032.
Helen Davis, a Duluth mother whose son suffered brain impacts from lead exposure 36 years ago, urged lawmakers to support efforts to reduce lead exposure.
“My son is 37, turning 38 this year, and he still suffers from lead exposure” that happened in 1986, Davis said.
Meanwhile, HF 2556, a bill introduced by state Rep. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, a physician, would impose an outright ban on all lead hunting ammunition.
Lead can kill eagles and other raptors that ingest lead bullet fragments or birdshot, and small pieces of lead fishing tackle kills loons that ingest them, mistaking them for small pebbles needed to digest their food. Trumpeter swans, ducks and another 120 species of birds have been found to have lead in their bloodstreams.
Lead bullets that shatter when they hit a deer also are a human health concern, tainting meat even far away from the point where the bullet struck the animal. State health officials said as much as 10% of all venison donated to food shelves in Minnesota has to be thrown out because it is contaminated with lead.
“A single piece of lead the size of a grain of rice will kill a bald eagle,” said Victoria Hall, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, which handled 1,000 wild birds in 2021. Hall said more than 85% of eagles admitted to the center for any problem have unhealthy lead levels in their blood and that as many as 30% die due to fatal lead levels.
The confounding problem with lead is that it is so inexpensive and so easy to work with. It is heavy, cheap and easy to mold into things like pellets for shotgun shells, fishing sinkers and jigs heads, tire weights (used to balance wheels) and other items. Many replacements are available that don’t have lead’s toxicity. But they tend to be much more expensive.
Tungsten, for example, is even heavier than lead and can be used for shotgun ammunition and fishing lures. But tungsten now goes for about $3.50 per pound while lead sells for about 25 cents.
Still, nontoxic bird shot and rifle ammunition, such as copper and steel, is widely available, effective and comparable in price to lead ammunition on store shelves.
Carroll Henderson, who headed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource Non-Game Division from 1977 to 2018, said he discovered his first eagle that died due to lead poisoning nearly a half-century ago. Henderson strongly supports the bill to ban lead ammunition.
“The tragedy of lead poisoning has plagued me for 48 years of my career,” Henderson said. “How many more years will it take to make the right decision?”
The bill calls on the DNR to provide lead-free alternatives to hunters and buy back lead ammunition.
Kelly Straka, who heads the Minnesota DNR’s wildlife division, said her agency supports the “concept” of phasing out lead ammunition for hunting and will be part of ongoing discussions on the issue at the Capitol.
Representative of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry trade group for U.S firearms and ammunition manufacturers, and the NRA, testified against any ban on lead ammunition, saying there’s no evidence it impacts overall wildlife populations.
Wednesday’s hearing was informational only and no vote was taken.
Lead is a human health disaster
Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Very high lead exposure can cause death. Lead can cross the placental barrier, which means pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child. Lead can damage a developing baby’s nervous system and brain development. Even low-level lead exposures in developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence. Lead exposure can cause miscarriage, stillbirths and infertility in both men and women.
Children show signs of severe lead toxicity at lower levels than adults, the CDC reports. Lead poisoning has occurred in children whose parents accidentally brought home lead dust on their clothing. Neurological effects and intellectual disability have also occurred in children whose parents may have job-related lead exposure. Prolonged exposure to lead can cause abdominal pain, depression, forgetfulness, nausea and raises the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and infertility. Lead also is believed to cause cancer.
Whether a person breathes, swallows or absorbs lead particles, the health effects are the same. Lead is absorbed and stored in our bones, blood and tissues where it becomes a source of continual internal exposure.