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EPA’s lead rule update fails children’s health

Millions are drinking lead-piped water, yet Trump’s EPA slows down pipe replacement


Alejandro Davila, Earthjustice, (760) 595-3518

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its updated — but flawed — Lead and Copper Rule, or LCR, which regulates the control and monitoring of lead in drinking water. The revised rule — released as the Trump administration rushes to lock in harmful public health rules — dramatically slows down the rate at which lead pipes are required to be replaced. It also allows small public water systems that used to be required to replace lead service lines to avoid replacing them altogether, even if those systems continually exceed the so-called lead action level. Groups represented by Earthjustice are expected to sue the agency over this rule. 

Most of the lead found in drinking water comes from lead service lines, according to the EPA. Lead service lines naturally corrode when water flows through them. EPA estimates there are as many as 10 million lead service lines in the country, and researchers estimate lead pipes serve as many as 22 million people. In the U.S., as many as half a million children under the age of six have elevated lead levels in their blood. And a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11.2% of African American children and 4% of Mexican American children are poisoned by lead.

Still, EPA’s new lead rule requires water systems to replace only 3% of lead service lines annually after certain lead action level exceedances, in contrast to the 7% rate in the current rule.

“This rule is a huge disappointment,” said Suzanne Novak, Earthjustice attorney. “Communities exposed to dangerous levels of lead in water expected significant improvement after a decade of work. The rule needed a major overhaul to be effective. But that is not what we got. By slowing down the replacement of lead service lines, rather than speeding it up, the Trump administration is failing the country once again, this time as it walks out the door. Children will continue to be poisoned, with no end in sight.”

There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even in small amounts, lead can cause irreversible brain damage in children, learning disabilities, and impaired hearing, among other severe health impacts. Lead is dangerous for pregnant women and all adults, too. Yet EPA failed to lower the rule’s action level for lead, a level at which water systems must take major actions to lower lead levels in water. At 15 parts per billion, the standard is far too high to adequately protect human health.

“If this rule stays as is, generations of children will continue to be poisoned by lead-tainted water,” said Zakia Shabazz, executive director of United Parents Against Lead, a nonprofit from Richmond, Virginia. “Lead poisoned children grow up to be lead poisoned adults. It’s past time for the EPA to revise the Lead and Copper Rule in favor of children’s health and stop childhood lead poisoning once and for all.”

“EPA had the opportunity to instate a lead rule that would truly protect families, especially children. Instead, it’s putting our most vulnerable at risk, exposing them to serious irreversible brain and nervous system development issues, and potentially life-long learning and behavioral challenges,” says Mary Wagner of the Newburgh Clean Water Project, a Hudson Valley New York community organization. “EPA must act on the health data and take appropriate action to protect the future of communities like ours, which have experienced multiple toxic exposures.”

“Lead in water is still a major problem for families and their children all over the country. Yet EPA today unveiled a lead rule that doctors and scientists say falls short,” said Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club Deputy Director of Policy Advocacy and Legal. “If this EPA is serious about stopping children from drinking lead-tainted water, then it can’t slow down the rate at which lead pipes are required to be replaced.”

United Parents Against Lead, Newburgh Clean Water Project, and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, are expected to sue the EPA over the rule.

While for the first time ever all childcare centers and schools are covered under the LCR, the rule forces no remediation. It requires only some testing, and the testing requirements do not comport with EPA’s own guidance for testing for lead in schools.

The LCR update was unveiled a day after EPA released an insufficient lead-dust rule, and six years after testing in Flint, MI, revealed astronomical levels of lead in water, exposing thousands of children to dangerously high doses of lead. The LCR was issued in 1991 and has not undergone significant revisions in almost 30 years. EPA scientists and advocates spent the last decade pushing for more health‐protective changes to the current rule, but water utilities won the day.

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