Lead poisoning, sometimes dubbed a “silent pandemic,” causes a variety of tough-to-diagnose, widespread effects on humans (particularly children) including reduced IQ, memory loss, and brain, heart, and kidney damage. The lead pipes and lead solder in community water systems are a major cause of lead exposure in the United States. Despite decades of mitigation efforts, recent lead-water crises have afflicted Washington, DC in 2002, Pittsburgh, Pa. in 2012, Flint, Mich. in 2014, and Newark, N.J. in 2016. Particularly in Flint, large-scale lead-leaching was unnecessarily prolonged and caused documented increases in children’s blood lead levels. Poor, minority communities have suffered more from such crises, making lead contamination in drinking water an important environmental justice issue. The Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal includes $45 billion for nationwide replacement of lead pipes, but even if this legislation survives congressional criticisms, many Americans would remain at risk for years if not decades while such measures are complete—unless our lead regulations are immediately and effectively improved.
The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) of 1991 aims to protect Americans from lead contamination in water, but these recent lead crises have been attributed to its shortcomings and poor enforcement. In the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, in 2016 the EPA began a multi-year Lead and Copper Rule Revisions process, which was finalized by the Trump administration in December 2020. The Biden administration has announced plans to begin implementation of the updated form of the revised rule beginning on June 17, 2021, after a public comment period.
A study by Princeton researchers based on 20 years of data concluded that public comments have a near-zero impact on policy-making in the US, so inviting comments from the public is extremely unlikely to result in substantive changes to the revised rule. Because the revised Lead and Copper Rule remains deeply flawed and dangerous to America’s children, the EPA should instead go back to the drawing board to drastically revamp it.
To improve the near-term protection of the public, the EPA needs to make fundamental changes in the rule’s provisions for water sampling, action thresholds and timetables, and oversight.
Inadequate samplings. Ineffective sample collection and under-reporting of lead concentrations played a fundamental role in the initial masking of the Flint crisis. Although the Lead and Copper Rule revisions provides for a few improvements in sample collection and reporting methods, it is still inadequate. The revisions continue to require the collection of a very small number of samples for estimating lead levels in certain water systems. For instance, for a water provider serving a 10,000 to 100,000 population living in thousands of homes, only 60 samples are required every six months to represent lead levels in the entire system. The rule revisions leave site selection largely to local governments and water utilities, with minimal oversight of the selection of sampling sites. The laissez-faire approach to site selection along with inadequate sample density creates opportunities for selective sampling. (While in theory the rule supposedly steers sampling towards high-risk homes, in practice it has been easy for water systems to avoid areas with suspected high concentrations of lead.) So the system allows under-representation of lead levels. Further, proper water lead-sampling methodology should include multiple consecutive water samples. While initial samples from a given tap tend to better represent leaded particulates, later samples better represent dissolved-lead concentrations, and both should be measured.
The Bulletin, 27 May 2021