Denver landlords aren’t required to tell their tenants about lead service lines, leaving some renters in the dark about the quality of water coming from their faucets.

Colorado’s capital city isn’t alone. Disclosure requirements for lead pipes are a mixed bag across the country, with states and municipalities taking different approaches. Only a handful have put rules in place to inform renters about their buildings’ infrastructure, as no federal mandate specific to lead pipes exists. However, the nation was confronted with the consequences of lead pipes ruining water quality when, beginning in 2014, residents of Flint, Mich., were exposed to a toxic water supply.

“Heavy metal poisoning is no joke; neither is the rent we pay here in Denver,” said Aditi Gopalakrishnan, a 26-year-old renter in the Alamo Placita neighborhood. She’s leased an apartment in the same complex for four years.

“I honestly don’t know if any of the pipes in the building are made of lead,” she said. “I don’t think I ever asked because it never occurred to me to ask.”

Gopalakrishnan, who works as a dog walker, now worries about the possibility of either her cat or her clients’ pets drinking lead-contaminated water.

“The least a landlord or leasing company could do is do their due diligence, inform the tenant/potential renter of any lead pipes, and not hide it in a liability clause in the lease,” she said. “It’s their jobs to provide safe accommodations for people.”

The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment requires landlords to tell renters about peeling or deteriorating lead paint, but not lead pipes, said spokesperson Tammy Vigil. Denver’s ordinance requiring residential rental property licenses also doesn’t include lead pipe disclosure to tenants, said Eric Escudero, Denver Department of Excise and Licenses spokesperson.

The only federal housing disclosure requirement for environmental hazards is for lead-based paint, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

“If we are talking to an individual landlord, I would venture to guess, if they knew they had a rental with lead pipes, they probably would not say anything, and a prospective renter would not know to ask,” said Rocco Germano of Rock Germano Realty LLC in Wheat Ridge.

But other parts of the country have taken steps to protect lessees from unknowingly exposing themselves to contaminated water. Washington, D.C., instructs landlords to tell prospective renters about the presence of certain lead-pipe related conditions before leasing the unit. Cincinnati maintains a similar mandate. Philadelphia also requires the disclosure of known lead service lines to tenants by landlords.

Denver Water, the state’s oldest and largest water utility, “cannot advise residents on what a landlord is required to disclose,” said spokesperson Jose Salas in an emailed statement. The agency serves water to 1.5 million people in the Mile High City and surrounding areas.

The agency runs the Lead Reduction Program, which began in January 2020 after receiving approval in December 2019 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Although Denver Water’s water is free of lead, it can become contaminated when passing through lead-containing household fixtures, plumbing and water service lines, or pipes that move water into the home from the main in the street, Salas said.

The Lead Reduction Program is geared toward getting rid of lead at the source: the customer-owned service lines. Homes constructed before 1951 are more likely to have such lines, according to Denver Water.

Residents can find out the risk of their property having a lead service line on an interactive map provided by Denver Water.

“We will replace around 4,500 customer-owned lead service lines per year over the next 13 years to remove the estimated 64,000 to 84,000 customer-owned lead service lines in our service area at no direct cost to the customer,” Salas said in an emailed statement.

Denver Water sends free water pitchers, filters and replacement filters to customers who may have a lead service line – an initiative that started in the spring of 2020. However, the water utility put out a notice in March that some residents mistakenly received Brita Standard Replacement Filters, which don’t remove lead, and resent the correct filters as replacements.

Denver Water notes that boiling water doesn’t remove lead.

The Lead Reduction Program resulted in an increase of the water’s pH level, which reflects its acidity and basicity. While the pH used to range between 7.5 to 8.5, it now falls between 8.5 and 9.2 – a move meant to mitigate the water’s corrosivity and help customers with lead plumbing, Denver Water said.

Lead, which is a toxic metal that can be harmful even at low exposure levels, can result in elevated blood pressure and incidence of hypertension, reduced kidney function and reproductive problems in adults, according to the EPA. Children are especially vulnerable, with low exposure levels “linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing and impaired formation and function of blood cells.”

In 1986, the U.S. government barred the use of lead pipes in public water systems or plumbing that provides water for human consumption.

Patrick Noonan of Colorado Housing Connects, which is Colorado’s only statewide housing helpline, said his team logged roughly 30,000 contacts over the last year from people with housing questions. Almost 3,200 were related to tenant-landlord issues, but “we can’t think of an example that somebody called in with a concern about lead service pipes,” he said in a telephone interview.

“I don’t think it’s a top-of-mind concern for many renters in the state,” Noonan added.

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He pointed to a requirement for landlords to disclose and provide information around lead hazards – “most specifically lead-based paint.” However, Noonan said he wasn’t aware of a policy centered on lead pipes.

Brandon Scholten, owner of Keyrenter Denver, said his team hasn’t had much involvement with the lead pipe issue. The property management company currently lists more than 50 rental properties on its website.

“To my knowledge, the city sends out notices directly to the property, as well as the water filters, so we are out of the loop on it,” he said in an emailed statement.

Still, some residents want more transparency around lead pipes.

Harrison Citrin, a 25-year-old renter in the area around Capitol Hill and Alamo Placita, said his landlord opted to tell him about the probability of lead pipes on the property, and “it should definitely be required” for lessors to do so.

“We know that the water quality’s not great,” he said, adding that he uses both a Brita water filter and shower head filter. “It’d be great if the pipes weren’t lead, but we deal with it.”

Kara Bogner, a 34-year-old renter, said, “I have no idea” if her apartment has lead pipes. She hasn’t received any notice about it.

“I wouldn’t move because of it,” Bogner said. However, “it would be nice” if landlords were obligated to inform their tenants, she added.

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