The Rockefeller Foundation and BlueConduit Partner to Improve Community Health by Developing Efficient and Cost-Effective Lead Service Line Replacement Programs
Ann Arbor, MI – April 1, 2021 – Leveraging the power of machine learning, BlueConduit, a water analytics company, and The Rockefeller Foundation have partnered to increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of lead service line replacement programs in the cities of Trenton (NJ), Toledo (OH), Detroit (MI), and Benton Harbor (MI). Controlling the lead abatement costs are critically important for resource-constrained projects such as these.
Studies have shown that lead primarily enters drinking water through plumbing materials, such as pipes. Health problems from lead exposure range from stomach distress to brain damage. “In 2018, researchers estimated more than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to lead exposure,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
As Eric Schwartz, a co-founder of BlueConduit and professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, explains,
“BlueConduit’s cutting-edge technology allows cities to manage cost-effective lead abatement programs that focus on areas with the greatest concentration of lead pipes. In many of the municipalities we’ve worked with since 2016, water service line materials records are often missing, inaccurate, or outdated. The uncertainty created by unreliable data is a big driver of cost, and these costs are magnified within economically disadvantaged cities and communities. Our objective is to use data science to improve public health and accelerate the removal of lead.”
“Recognizing the detrimental health effects of lead exposure and its disproportionate burden on disadvantaged communities, The Rockefeller Foundation collaborated with BlueConduit to leverage the power of machine learning to map the locations of lead pipes in Trenton (NJ), Toledo (OH), Detroit (MI) and Benton Harbor (MI) so that local organizations could replace them more quickly and efficiently,” The Rockefeller Foundation stated in a release.
By bringing together municipal utilities and a technology-driven social enterprise, these projects demonstrate The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission to advance new frontiers of science, data, and innovation to solve global challenges related to health.
Multi-year, multi-million dollar lead service line removal programs are in progress in all four cities. Trenton Water Works is in the midst of a five-year program that targets the removal of up to 37,000 lead service lines. The city of Toledo is allocating $2 million per year for 30 years to its lead replacement efforts. It has also secured a $200,000 environmental justice grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to support the further development of BlueConduit’s data model and public education efforts related to lead risk reduction.
“The city of Trenton has committed to replacing 100 percent of all lead pipes, but if we assume that every unknown water pipe contains lead, then the scale of the problem could be significantly overestimated,” explains Kristin Epstein, Assistant Director at Trenton Water Works. “BlueConduit’s predictive mapping work will enable us to more accurately plan, fund and implement the critical work of lead pipe replacement throughout the city of Trenton.”
Mark Riley, the administrator for Toledo’s water distribution division, says “Our plan is to have meetings to share results with the community, and develop essentially a public-facing map showing our results.” He sees “continual engagement” with the people of Toledo as the way to successfully integrate community perspectives and the use of predictive tech. 
The city of Detroit is projecting its program will cost $450 million, has integrated replacement into its water main replacement program to reduce costs and lessen impact on rates, and per a state of Michigan requirement, all lead service lines must be removed by 2040. The Kresge Foundation is also supporting BlueConduit’s work in Detroit. Benton Harbor is also subject to the same Michigan requirement and has received a $6 million EPA grant to fund service line replacements.
While the design and implementation of these programs varies slightly, the primary goal remains the same – reduce the number of days citizens may live with the risk of lead exposure by targeting remediation efforts. BlueConduit’s predictive data model helps cities achieve this goal.
Schwartz describes the company’s positive impact in the following way: “BlueConduit is able to provide cities with rank ordered lists of properties with the highest probability of the presence of lead service lines. The accuracy of our household level predictions allows cities to forgo costly exploratory digs and accelerate their replacement work.”
BlueConduit is a water analytics company that has developed cutting-edge, predictive machine learning methods to locate lead service lines, empowering local officials with the information to efficiently remove those pipes. Our model enables utilities to focus their resources on digging where the lead is and accelerating the removal of this significant health concern and save millions of dollars in avoided digs.
The team began guiding Flint’s lead service line replacement program in 2016. Since then, more than 50 cities are using BlueConduit’s methods to inventory and locate lead service lines. BlueConduit has inventoried more than 500,000 service lines across its projects in the United States and Canada. Those service lines provide water to more than 1,000,000 residents.
About Rockefeller Foundation
The Rockefeller Foundation advances new frontiers of science, data, and innovation to solve global challenges related to health, food, power, and economic mobility. As a science-driven philanthropy focused on building collaborative relationships with partners and grantees, The Rockefeller Foundation seeks to inspire and foster large-scale human impact that promotes the well-being of humanity throughout the world by identifying and accelerating breakthrough solutions, ideas, and conversations.
- Fussell, Sidney. “An Algorithm Is Helping A Community Detect Lead Pipes.” Wired, 14 Jan. 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/algorithm-helping-community-detect-lead-pipes/. Accessed 10 May 2021.