What You Need To Know About the Latest Revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule

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Analies Dyjak, M.A. | Head of Policy and Perspectives

The Environmental Protection Agency has recently made revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule, which regulates the amount of lead allowed in municipal tap water. The Lead and Copper Rule has not been significantly updated since it was created in 1991 - meaning that the same regulatory standards have been in place for almost 3 decades. EPA’s recent update did not fundamentally change this outdated law, and the agency still has a long way to go in reducing lead contamination in the nations drinking water. 

Lead Pipes Are Still Problematic in 2021

There are an estimated 6.3 to 9.3 million homes in the United States that still have a Lead Service Line (LSL). Most of these homes were built before 1986, when the use of lead was banned in pipes, solder and plumbing. Flint, Michigan dominated headlines in 2015 when 99,000 people were exposed to unsafe levels of lead, including thousands of children. Flint was not and is not the only city with unsafe lead levels. There are still dozens of large cities that have lead levels above what health officials claim to be safe, including: Chicago, Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles

No Safe Level Of Lead For Children 

The current federal Action Level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion. Lead is unique from other drinking water contaminants because it follows the 90th Percentile Rule, which has been criticized by various reputable environmental non-profits. The Centers for Disease Control has acknowledged that 15 parts per billion is not a health standard, but rather a feasible level of enforcement - meaning anything less than 15 parts per billion is too stringent for municipal compliance. The problem is that there is no safe level of lead for children. Any level of exposure has the potential to cause irreversible developmental damages, including; lowered IQ’s, behavioral difficulties, and other learning problems. EPA has even acknowledged that children should not be exposed to any level of lead. 

Latest Revisions To The Rule:

EPA made a handful of small modifications to the original 1991 Lead and Copper Rule. One of the major updates to the rule is increasing EPA’s “inventory” of Lead Service Lines throughout the country. Once LSL’s and pipes have been identified, EPA will require communities to “find and fix'' homes that exceed 15 parts per billion. The system must provide documentation to the state if they’re unable to fix or mitigate the lead levels. Under the rule revisions, systems serving greater than 50,000 people will be required to make the LSL inventory available online. Also, municipal systems will be required to provide annual notices to homeowners with LSL’s. Replacing LSL’s are particularly tricky to manage because they’re co-owned by the city and homeowner. Some cities have programs to coordinate replacing the public and private side of the line at the same time.  

EPA’s New “Trigger Level” For Lead

Part of EPA’s revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule include a new “trigger level.” According to the regulatory revisions, systems that have a 90th percentile higher than 10 parts per billion will be required to work with their state to determine annual lead line replacement goals. This “trigger level” is not a new Action Level, and does not initiate a violation if a water system has higher than 10 ppb lead. EPA also pointed out in the proposed regulation that the trigger level is also not a health standard. As previously stated, any concentration of lead can be harmful to children. 

Will The New Updates Better Protect Public Health?

In the short term, no. There is no real "quick fix" for lead contamination. Replacing lead pipes and Lead Services Lines takes time, and can actually cause an increase in lead levels during and after construction. While these changes are better than nothing, the recent revisions are not a significant overhaul of an extremely flawed regulation. The inventory however, has the potential to make people aware of LSL's in their homes. 

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