Despite Major Health Risks, the EPA Plans to Leave Millions of Lead Water Pipes in the Ground

Rather than strengthening the desperately outdated Lead and Copper Rule to protect people’s—especially children’s—health, the agency chose to weaken it.
water sample with lead
A wat​er sample containing lead, a known neurotoxin that poses health risks, especially in children
Credit: Bryan Anselm/Redux

Rather than strengthening the desperately outdated Lead and Copper Rule to protect people’s—especially children’s—health, the agency chose to weaken it.

UPDATE: On December 22, 2020, the EPA published its final revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule, which will leave millions of people exposed to toxic lead in drinking water. “EPA’s rule condemns millions of Americans to drink lead-contaminated water for a generation. That’s unjust and illegal,” says Erik D. Olson, NRDC senior strategic director for health. “EPA’s new rule will leave those pipes in use for decades—and in many cases forever. We can, and must, do better.”   

A draft of the Trump administration’s final Lead and Copper Rule was leaked today, which revealed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will significantly weaken the safeguards that help keep lead—a toxic metal—out of drinking water, including delaying and, in most cases, completely refusing to require the removal of millions of lead service lines that are still in use. There is no safe level of exposure to this potent, irreversible neurotoxin. Even low levels of exposure pose significant health risks, particularly to children and fetuses, including damage to the brain and nervous systems, learning disabilities, and impaired hearing. 

“You can't fix the problem of lead in drinking water until you pull all the lead pipes out of the ground,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director of NRDC’s Health team. “But EPA Administrator Wheeler will leave millions of lead pipes untouched and allow even the most contaminated communities to take 33 years to remove them." 

As the report Watered Down Justice shows, those who are most impacted by drinking water violations and ineffective response are Black and Latino communities and low-income neighborhoods. Drinking water crises in cities like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey—both majority-Black cities—are examples of this disparate impact. While both of those cities are taking actions to help address the issue, a weaker Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which has not been significantly updated since 1991, would only exacerbate the problem in communities across the country. 

Substantial strengthening changes were needed in order to modernize and simplify the LCR, including replacing the unsafe “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb)—which wasn’t directly enforceable—with a strict maximum lead-contaminant level of 5 ppb. The action level is based on the 90th percentile level of lead tested at high-risk homes.

The latest update of the LCR fails on all accounts. 

The health-harming 15 ppb action level stayed in place, and no legal maximum contaminant level was set. According to NRDC analysis of EPA data, at least 5.5 million people in the United States were served by water systems that exceeded the agency’s weak lead action level between January 2015 and March 2018. While there is no safe level of lead, public health experts recommend that limits be set as close to zero as feasibly possible. Canada recently set a 5 ppb maximum, and the European Union recently recommended that its maximum lead level in drinking water be dropped from 10 ppb to 5 ppb.

The EPA’s revision to the rule also fails to require every lead service line—the primary source of lead contamination in drinking water—to be replaced. Currently, six million to ten million lead pipes still deliver water to homes across the country, and even the water industry recognizes that every line must be identified and removed in order to prevent drinking water contamination. 

And instead of speeding up the removal of lead pipes in the most contaminated water systems—disproportionately found in communities of color—the EPA does the opposite: The new rule extends the deadline for pulling out these lead lines in the most highly contaminated systems from 14 to 33 years. The city of Flint, whose residents have endured years of lead contamination in their drinking water, is replacing its damaged lead pipes within just four years, and proposed bipartisan legislation would generally require water utilities nationwide to replace lead service lines within a decade. 

Despite widespread reports of high lead levels in school systems—and the specific risk posed to children’s development—the latest LCR only requires water utilities to check 20 percent of the schools and childcare centers they serve each year for lead in their water, and to only test five fountains or water outlets in each school (and just two in daycare centers). This is an inadequate and unrepresentative sample size and will likely mean that, in many cases, lead problems will be missed, so that parents and staff would be misled into thinking there is not a lead issue. 

“Much more aggressive action is required—abandoning an entire generation of kids to drinking this dangerous neurotoxin for decades simply is not good enough,” Olson says.

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