Reducing Lead in Tap Water Would Yield Billions in Previously Ignored Health and Other Benefits, Far Surpassing Costs
Harvard Analysis Should Bolster EPA’s New Lead in Water Rule Coming Soon
WASHINGTON – Cutting lead levels in drinking water would yield at least $9 billion in annual health benefits and other benefits that taken together exceed costs by at least 35-fold, according to a new analysis by researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study also found the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) significantly underestimates the health benefits from reducing lead in tap water.
The analysis was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Research by Harvard researchers Ronnie Levin and Joel Schwartz. The authors are recognized lead experts who were formerly involved in developing EPA’s estimates in the 1980’s of the health benefits of reducing lead exposure.
“Lead-contaminated drinking water causes far more harm to the health of children and adults than is generally recognized and has a disproportionate impact on low-income and communities of color,” said Erik D. Olson, Senior Strategic Director for Health at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “The benefits of cutting lead levels in our tap water — lessening harm to kids’ brains, shrinking levels of heart disease and death, and increasing equitable access to safe water — far outstrip the costs.”
The Harvard analysis shows that the EPA’s January 2021 proposed plan to regulate lead in drinking water during the Trump Administration failed to consider the vast majority of the $9.2 billion in health benefits that EPA’s published scientific assessments found are caused by lead exposure. The study found the EPA had “developed a highly detailed and comprehensive cost analysis while ignoring 95 percent of the health effects it has determined are causally related to lead exposure.” The study noted the EPA’s 2021 analysis of the economic costs of addressing lead in water is 359 pages long while the discussion of health benefits totals 56 pages.
The Harvard study concludes that reducing lead levels in tap water based would lead to greater annual benefits by two orders of magnitude – ranging from $11.7 billion to $17.1 billion per year – compared to EPA’s estimate of just $645 million and costs of $335 million per year. “Even the lowest estimate of materials benefits alone greatly exceeds all the estimated costs of the rule – effectively, the health benefits are free,” the authors write.
A few examples of benefits of reducing health harms that EPA recognizes are causally linked to lead but fails to include in its estimates are:
- Short-term damage to children’s cognitive function, estimated at $645 million/year;
- Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, estimated at $211 million/year;
- Impaired hearing in children, estimated at $47 million/year;
- Depression and ADHD in adults, estimated at $64 million/year;
- Hypertension in adults, estimated at $94 million/year;
- Cardiovascular disease-related deaths, estimated at $8,142 million ($8.1 billion)/year;
In addition, the researchers noted that both EPA and numerous engineering experts have found that large benefits will accrue from better controlling water corrosion, which would be required by EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule. The total benefits they calculate from reduced corrosion of water infrastructure as well as less corrosion of some household appliances ranges from $2.4 billion to $7.8 billion per year.
Additionally, the authors point out that additional measures to reduce lead levels in tap water, such as requiring replacement of all lead service lines, will yield even greater benefits, but these actions were not required by the January 2021 rule.
The EPA is expected to issue new lead in drinking water regulations by September 2023 that would take effect in 2024. Strengthening the Lead and Copper Rule to require better water treatment and replacing the nation’s nearly 10 million lead water pipes would “yield major health gains and benefit water systems,” Olson added.
Note: Co-author Ronnie Levin received partial funding from NRDC, but NRDC had no involvement in the analysis, writing or submission of the study.
“A better cost: benefit analysis yields better and fairer results: EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule Revision,” Ronnie Levin, Joel Schwartz, Environmental Research, July 15, 2023, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37080271/.
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Established in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, law, and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health, and safeguard nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, Beijing and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd). Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.