Filtered Not Bottled: Protecting Communities from the Toxic Impacts of Lead and Plastic

The U.S. government recently approved $15 billion dollars to replace toxic lead water pipes, also known as service lines, which an estimated 22 million people rely on across the country. The government has said it will prioritize communities with the highest lead exposure levels and most pressing environmental justice concerns. This is good news, but we need to make sure these funds are not used to replace lead with another harmful toxic material—plastic

Plastic Pollution Coalition has two urgent recommendations for municipalities and states that can protect community health and prioritize non-plastic solutions:

  1. Filtered Not Bottled. All households impacted by lead service line replacements should be provided with options for filtered water, not plastic bottles. Single-use plastic water bottles, like all plastics, are a health threat to people and the environment at every stage of their existence.
  2. Plastic-Free Pipes. Lead service pipes should be replaced with non-toxic materials, not plastics like PVC. Plastics can introduce additional toxic chemicals into the water with which they come into contact, further impacting community health.
Plastic is Not a Safe Replacement For Lead
Toxic Impacts of Lead and Plastic 2

During community lead-pipe replacement projects, state or local governments typically provide affected homes with bottled water for drinking and cooking. Yet, opting for single-use plastic water bottles simply swaps one toxic problem for another. 

Single-use plastics pose health risks at every step of their lifecycle, from production to disposal. Plastic production, shipping, use, and disposal pollutes the air, water, and soil. Low-income, rural, and BIPOC frontline/fenceline communities are unfairly targeted for plastic infrastructure, activities, and waste, causing widespread injustice. Plastic contributes to elevated rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, and creates risk of fire and explosions where it is made and stored. Plastics are made of fossil fuels, and are significant contributors to the climate crisis.

Plastic water bottles leach toxic chemicals and microplastic particles into the water they carry, which people drink. Plastic water bottles contain polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which are known to disrupt important human hormone functions

Most plastic water bottles, like all plastic items, are not recycled. Instead, plastics are commonly sent to landfills or incinerators, are shipped overseas, or are dumped and open-burned. Plastic poses additional health risks to communities located near plastic disposal facilities, infrastructure, and dumping sites. All plastic items break up into dangerous microplastics, which are found in human blood, lungs, placentas, feces, and breastmilk, and can disrupt the body’s hormone system and activate harmful inflammation to cause disease. Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful health effects of plastic.

Lead-impacted Communities Need Filtered Water Now
Toxic Impacts of Lead and Plastic

According to a recent study, there are as many as 12 million lead pipes carrying water into 22 million people’s homes in the United States. Lead exposure is extremely dangerous to children, harming brain development, bone and muscle growth, and nervous system and kidney function. Lead pipes and the drinking water these pipes contaminate constitutes a public health emergency. The intentional placement of cheap lead pipes in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in the United States is an environmental injustice crisis. States and cities across the U.S. must act quickly to remove toxic lead pipes and protect the children and families impacted by lead exposure.

Government funds for lead-pipe replacement will take several years to be distributed to states as either grants or low-interest loans. It may take several years for lead pipes to be replaced, so it’s important people start filtering their water as soon as possible if they live in lead-impacted communities. Water filters certified to remove lead should be used before, during, and up to six months after pipes are replaced, since the replacement effort can displace additional lead in home water systems. Filters are the best solution for providing clean drinking water to homes. 

Filtered water provides a safe alternative that puts human health first, spreading access to clean water in lead-impacted communities, while also reducing plastic exposure in communities located near plastic production and disposal sites. We still have time to influence how the federal and local government use these funds to provide toxic-free drinking water during lead pipe replacement.

Take Action

Take action today to ensure lead pipes do not replace plastic pollution. Learn more about the Filtered Not Bottled campaign on our website.


There’s a famous speech in 1957 where a marketing guy showed up at a plastics industry conference and said, ‘the future of plastic is in the trash can’…if you can convince people to throw it away.

Jackie Nuñez

From June 13–16, 2022; activists from across the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement converged on Washington D.C. to lobby members of Congress to sign on to/co-sponsor the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. The proposed legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA), builds on the successes of U.S. state laws and represents the most comprehensive set of policy solutions to the plastic pollution crisis ever introduced in Congress. 

Jackie Nuñez (@NoPlasticStraws) is Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Advocacy & Engagement Manager and the Founder of The Last Plastic Straw. For 11 years, Jackie has met with policymakers and industry leaders across the world advocating for a plastic-free future. From June 13–16, Jackie took part in the “Break Free From Plastic Week of Action” with allies from across the country. She sat down to tell us what was happening on the ground, next steps, policy updates, and more.

Interviewing Jackie is Erica Cirino, Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Communications Manager. Erica has spent the last decade working as a science writer, author, and artist exploring the intersection of the human and nonhuman worlds. She is best known for her widely published photojournalistic works that cut through plastic industry misinformation and injustice to deliver the often shocking and difficult truths about this most ubiquitous and insidious material. In her recent award-winning book, Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis (Island Press, 2021), she documents plastic across ecosystems and elements; shares stories from the primarily Black, Brown, Indigenous and rural communities that are disproportionately harmed by industrial pollution globally; and uncovers strategies that work to prevent plastic from causing further devastation to our planet and its inhabitants.