U.S. drinking water system operators have been preparing for the federal lead-free law to take effect in January 2014. Four states already have laws in place that comply with or exceed its requirements.

Drinking Water Providers Getting the Lead Out

The Reduction Act calls for reducing lead in new products, new installations, and repairs of systems that deliver drinking water. It takes effect in January 2014.

On Jan. 4, 2014, the federal Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act (Reduction Act) takes effect in the United States. The Reduction Act amends the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to reduce the amount of lead in drinking water.

EPA has primary responsibility for interpreting the SDWA. Individual states—using health or plumbing codes or other standards consistent with the SDWA and EPA regulations—are expected to enforce the standards. Although the SDWA is an expansive and lengthy document, the Reduction Act amends only SDWA Section 1417 to:

1. Redefine "lead free":

  • lowers the maximum lead content of wetted surfaces of plumbing products, such as pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures, from 8 percent to a weighted average of 0.25 percent and retains lead limits in solder and flux to 0.2 percent;
  • establishes a statutory method for the calculation of lead content; and
  • eliminates the requirement that lead-free products be in compliance with voluntary standards established in accordance with SDWA 1417(e) for leaching of lead from new plumbing fittings and fixtures.

2. Create exemptions in SWDA from the prohibitions on the use or introduction into commerce for:

  • "pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings or fixtures including backflow preventers, that are used exclusively for nonpotable services such as manufacturing, industrial processing, irrigation, outdoor watering, or any other uses where the water is not anticipated to be used for human consumption"
  • "toilets, bidets, urinals, fill valves, flushometer valves, tub fillers, shower valves, service saddles, or water distribution main gate valves that are 2 inches in diameter or larger."

EPA defines "potable services" as "services or applications that provide water suitable for human ingestion (e.g. drinking, teeth brushing, food preparation, dishwashing, maintaining oral hygiene)." The agency includes fire hydrants in the "potable services" category, on the basis that fire hydrants are used in emergency situations to provide drinking water when normal operations of drinking water distribution systems are interrupted. But in the first week of December, Congress moved to block EPA from having the act apply to fire hydrants. In a rare show of congressional harmony, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 384-0 on Dec. 2 to pass H.R. 3588, a bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, and Paul D. Tonko, D-N.Y., for the sole purpose of exempting fire hydrants from the amended Section 1417.

The Reduction Act eliminates existing lead limits of 8 percent for nonpotable services, including toilets, shower valves, and irrigation systems. However, if a manufacturer or seller of plumbing systems and products, including garden hoses, anticipate that someone will use the system or product to drink water, lead limits are restricted to potable services limits. The act applies to new products, new installations, and repair work; there is no requirement to remove or retrofit existing water delivery systems or products

The Reduction Act affects all 50 U.S. states, as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Virgin Islands, America Samoa, and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. California, Louisiana, Maryland, and Vermont have their own lead-free laws that comply with or exceed the new act's requirements.

The SDWA, passed in 1974, is the main federal law that protects public health by regulating the nation's public drinking water supply. For more information about the SDWA, visit http://www2.epa.gov/learn-issues/learn-about-water or http://water.epa.gov/drink/info/lead/.

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