Leftover Trump EPA rule leaves millions at risk from lead-tainted tap water

Biden’s plan would replace all lead pipes and service lines

Civil rights and environmental groups are urging the Biden administration to delay implementation of a Trump-era rule that would leave millions of Americans exposed to toxic lead in drinking water.

In the last month of the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its final revisions of the Lead and Copper Rule, which limits levels of those hazardous metals in water pipes and fixtures. But the revised rule is too lax, because it fails to require full removal of the nearly six to 10 million lead service lines in use in the U.S.

By contrast, President Biden’s $2 trillion-plus Jobs Plan would replace all lead pipes and service lines, and House and Senate leaders have also proposed federal financing to replace lead service lines. Full removal of leaded lines (both the portion owned by the local water system and the part owned by the property owner), coupled with public notification and provision of water filters, is the only way to protect communities. By contrast, partial replacement, as allowed by the Trump rule, can have the detrimental effect of raising rather than lowering the lead levels in drinking water.

The Trump EPA’s revised rule was to have taken effect March 16. But only days before that date, the new Biden EPA announced the rule will not take effect until June, since the agency needed more time to review public comments and may decide to extend the effective date even longer. The EPA is currently seeking public comments from communities that have long struggled with lead pollution.

As now written, the Trump-era rule requires community water systems by January 2024 to inventory and make public information about all lead service lines in their service areas, as well as plans to replace known and suspected leaded lines. However, the rule allows systems to classify an unlimited number of lines as “lead status unknown,” thereby avoiding full disclosure.

In addition, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, the EPA’s rules for creating the inventories improperly classify lead water line connectors, known as goosenecks, and other fittings, as “non-lead lines.” This definition, if allowed to stand, would leave water system customers whose service lines may contain lead goosenecks and fittings at risk of lead exposure.

For children, there is no “safe” level of lead exposure

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children, since it affects brain development and can impair learning and behavior. There is a strong scientific consensus that any amount of lead exposure during childhood is harmful.

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Exposure during children’s first six years is the greatest risk, because the brain is developing, and the blood-brain barrier is not yet fully formed. Babies fed formula mixed with unfiltered tap water are at highest risk of ingesting lead in drinking water, since they absorb as much as half of the lead they ingest.

Lead exposure is also harmful for adults. A recent study shows that the link between lead exposure and a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease accounts for an estimated  400,000-plus deaths yearly. Increased blood lead levels are also linked to higher blood pressure and higher cholesterol levels.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, and Earthjustice, together with a coalition of civil rights and environmental groups, have sued the EPA, asking the agency to develop a stronger version of the Lead and Copper Rule. EWG has joined the comment letters from Earthjustice and NRDC, urging the EPA to strengthen the Trump-era rule so that it is health-protective and to set deadlines for the removal of lead service lines.

Lead contaminates tap water after it leaves the drinking water treatment plant. In the distribution system to homes, lead leaches from outdated water pipes and fittings into drinking water.  

Pipes made of lead were once used in thousands of urban, suburban and rural communities, most commonly in water lines installed before the 1950s. But lead continued to be allowed in faucets, valves, fittings and solder after the 1950s, and this use was not restricted until 1986. It was only in 2011 that Congress reduced lead content in pipes to no more than 0.25 percent, but this level still results in significant leaching of lead into drinking water.

Treatment can reduce lead, but only full removal and replacement ensures safety

Leaching of lead from water pipes can be minimized by the addition of water treatment chemicals that reduce corrosivity – but that approach is only partly successful.

As we have seen in Flint, Mich., Newark, N.J., Washington, D.C., and other communities, some water utilities fail to take steps to mitigate the problems caused by old pipes and allow lead to leach into drinking water. The only solution is the complete removal of lead pipes and plumbing fixtures that contain lead, and their replacement with safer alternatives. Such removal, however, must be done carefully and in a health-protective manner so that consumers are not exposed to high amounts of lead.

Most residential buildings and houses contain lead in faucets, fittings, lead solder or pipes inside the building, but lead service lines, which are external water lines made up of leaded pipes or fittings, are the largest source of lead in drinking water. Any or all of the four main portions of the line can be lead:

  • The portion of the pipe that runs from the water main to the property line or curb, called the public side, may be owned by the city or water utility. In some communities, the entire line may be considered the property, and responsibility, of the homeowner.
  • Connection pieces, or fittings, can include a bended pipe that connects the water main to the service line, a cross-shaped pipe that connects two lines together, or other pipe connectors. The bended pipe is often referred to as a gooseneck or  pigtail.
  • The section from the curb to the house is called the private side, since some utilities say it is privately owned. But ownership can vary depending on the city.
  • The last part of the pipe is a small portion inside the home that runs to the main shutoff valve or water meter.

Studies show that leaded goosenecks and fittings pose unique challenges. When these fittings are attached to non-lead pipes, such as those made of galvanized steel, the lead can react with the other metal and creates chemical reactions that corrode the lead. Scale inside pipes can also absorb corroded lead and store it until it is dislodged into the water during service line replacement.

When replacing lead components, utilities may require homeowners to pay for the portion of pipe that runs from the curb to their home. If the residential portion is not replaced, the utility may replace only the portion of pipe running from the water main to the property line, connecting the new pipe to the old lead pipe.

Such partial lead service line replacement disturbs the pipes, increasing the leaching of lead into drinking water. As reported by NRDC, the result is increased health risks as well as wasted money, without a reduction in lead levels in drinking water.

In a study by Canadian researchers at Dalhousie University, full lead service line replacements resulted in more than a 50 percent drop in lead levels within days and significantly lower levels in drinking water in a month. But partial replacements resulted in higher levels of lead, with no benefit in the longer term. Even after six months, some residences still had higher lead levels. A field study for the United Kingdom’s Department of the Environment demonstrated that partial lead service line replacements can cause drinking water lead levels to rise for as long as 18 months.

Informing the public about potential lead line replacements in their residential areas is crucial, as is providing consumers – both property owners and tenants – with lead-certified filters for the duration of any suspected lead contamination. The proposed update to the Lead and Copper Rule requires utilities to notify the property owner or consumer of a planned replacement on the public side, provide water filters and cartridges for six months and offer free sampling. But since partial lead service line replacements can cause lead levels to rise for as long as 18 months, consumers cannot be sure that six months of filtering will protect their health.

Partial replacements tend to affect renters and lower-income, socially vulnerable communities disproportionately and put them at a higher risk of lead exposure. But some states have programs in place to support funding the private costs, cost-sharing or paying for replacements from ratepayer funds.

What can families and individuals do?

  • If your home was built after 1988 with a new water connection, you most likely do not have a lead service line on your property. Even if your home was built before 1988, it may not have a lead service line, since they began to be phased out in the late 1940s. But your service line may have leaded goosenecks and other fittings, and if the water main line was constructed before 1988, it could have leaded parts too.
  • Contact your water utility and ask whether any portions of your water line or of the water utility main line are lead. Depending on the response, you may ask how certain the utility is. Ask whether the utility posts maps showing the location of lead lines within its service area, and how the utility will notify you if it plans to undertake lead line or fitting replacements.
  • You can also inspect the pipe entering your home, as this NRDC article describes.
  • If you or your utility plans to replace any lead parts in a service line, use a water filter certified to remove lead to mitigate the temporary increase in lead that will result. EWG’s Water Filter Guide can help you find one. If only the public part of the line is replaced, filter your water for up to 18 months.
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