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We Need Tougher Rules to Keep Lead Out of Kids’ Drinking Water

Lead contamination of drinking water is a crisis in this country, and the EPA needs to do everything it can to strengthen the regulations designed to protect us from this hidden threat.

"Dropping" by Ceyhun (Jay) Isik/
Children in Flint, Michigan, have been poisoned by lead in the city's tap water. (Ceyhun (Jay) Isik/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Last month, the mayor of Flint, Michigan, alerted her city to a manmade disaster. Tests showed that too many children in the city had unsafe levels of lead in their blood, and the mayor responded by declaring a state of emergency. This was not an overreaction. Lead is poisonous to all humans, and the World Health Organization warns that “young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects . . . as it affects brain development and can lead to lifelong behavioral problems and learning disabilities.”

A Foreseeable Emergency

The source of the lead poisoning Flint’s children was clear: the city’s tap water. Like many cities in the U.S., Flint’s water infrastructure contains lead pipes. Lead pipes naturally corrode when water flows through them, causing lead to leach into water destined for consumers’ taps. Utilities can significantly reduce the risk of lead entering the water supply through a process called “corrosion control treatment,” which involves treating water with non-toxic chemicals to create a protective barrier, or “scale,” inside lead pipes.

The scale keeps water from coming into direct contact with lead pipes, but if a utility stops the treatment, the scale can deteriorate and break off, allowing lead to enter the water supply unabated. That’s what happened in Flint. Trying to save money, in 2014 the city switched from buying its water from Detroit, which uses corrosion control treatment, to drawing its water directly from the nearby Flint River—without taking any steps to prevent foreseeable lead contamination.

Are You Drinking Through a Lead Straw?

The manmade disaster the city now faces flows from this short-sighted decision, but the threat of lead-contaminated water is not limited to Flint. Lead pipes were commonly used in service lines—which connect water mains to buildings and residences—until the mid-1950s, and lead service lines weren’t officially banned until 1986. Because the water infrastructure of many towns and cities is decades old, millions of people across the country drink water delivered through lead pipes just like Flint’s.

The EPA has a rule designed to make sure that toxic metals in a water system’s pipes do not threaten public health. This regulation—known as the Lead and Copper Rule, or LCR—requires water systems to take steps such as corrosion control treatment, educational outreach, and gradually replacing lead service lines in systems where lead levels are high. The LCR has not been substantially updated since 1991 and, unfortunately, it doesn’t do nearly enough to protect the public from the dangers of lead contamination.

Regulation That’s Full of Holes

The LCR is simply out of date. We now know that corrosion control treatment does not eliminate the risk of lead leaching into drinking water, but only reduces it. Recent research has shown that lead levels can spike dangerously when lead pipes are physically disturbed  (such as when routine roadwork happens nearby) or when water flows through such pipes after a period of disuse (such as when a family turns the water back on after moving in to a new home), even in water systems with proper corrosion control treatment. Another major problem has been making sure that utilities actually follow the rules. The LCR gives water systems specific steps they must take to monitor lead levels, including testing tap water samples from high-risk homes. Many utilities have failed to follow these steps, making it impossible to know the full extent of the lead contamination in many water systems. 

Worse still, the LCR has actually increased many families’ exposure to lead-contaminated water, especially in low-income communities. The LCR says that water systems must replace lead service lines if lead levels go above a certain threshold. However, it’s property owners who must pay the $1,000 to $7,000 cost of replacing the portion of the pipe running under their private property. If an owner does not—or cannot— pay, the utility will saw off the lead pipe at the property line and replace only the portion that it “owns.” Partially replacing a lead service line in this way disturbs the pipe— leading to an immediate spike in lead levels—and does not reduce the amount of lead flowing into the home long-term. This policy has contributed to dangerously high blood lead levels in thousands of children in cities such as Washington, D.C.

Holding the EPA’s Feet to the Fire

The EPA has committed to make long-overdue revisions to the LCR, and two months ago an official advisory group to the agency endorsed a report recommending specific changes. Unfortunately, these recommendations fall far short of what is needed to create an effective LCR.  The report endorses a goal of replacing all lead service lines within 30 years, but it doesn’t provide any way of making sure utilities follow through with this plan. In the same vein, the report acknowledges that partially replacing lead service lines has been a failure, but it doubles down on the misguided policy of making utilities responsible for replacing lead pipes only up to the property line. The report even proposes to weaken the system for monitoring lead levels by getting rid of mandatory testing for high-risk homes. The list goes on, but suffice it to say that the EPA’s advisory group seems more concerned with making life easier for utilities than with protecting the public from the real dangers of lead-contaminated water.

It’s simply unacceptable that drinking water at home or at school can expose a child to a neurotoxin with devastating, lifelong consequences. The EPA must do everything in its power to ensure that the LCR is as robust and effective as possible. For the past few years, Earthjustice has been working on lead-in-water issues, and most recently we’ve been working with a coalition of clean water and community health advocates from around the country—including some incredible activists from Flint. Today we’re meeting with EPA representatives to let them know we won’t settle for anything less than strong rules to protect our nation’s water.  

Carter Hall is a Senior Associate Attorney with the Clean Energy Program. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.