EPA announces new action on lead in drinking water

EPA announced on March 7 that it is initiating the Drinking Water Lead Reduction Plan to strengthen, update and clarify existing requirements for water utilities and states to test for and reduce lead in drinking water. This action will tighten monitoring, treatment, lead service line management and customer awareness. The plan also addresses lead in tap water in schools and child care facilities.

"We need to free people from worrying about lead in their drinking water," said Ben Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water. "This plan will increase the accuracy and consistency of monitoring and reporting, and it ensures that where there is a problem, people will be notified and the problem will be dealt with quickly and properly."

From 1995-2004, states have concluded 1,753 enforcement actions to ensure compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), and EPA has concluded 570. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, state agencies take a lead role in enforcing the LCR.

Drinking water does not start out containing lead. Lead is picked up as water passes through pipes and household plumbing fittings and fixtures that contain lead. Water leaches lead from these sources and becomes contaminated. In 1991, to reduce lead in drinking water, EPA issued the LCR. The LCR requires water utilities to reduce lead contamination by controlling the corrosiveness of water and, as needed, replace lead service lines used to carry water from the street to the home.

Under the LCR, if 10 percent of required sampling show lead levels above a 15 parts per billion (ppb) action level, the utility must 1) take a number of actions to control corrosion and 2) carry out public education to inform consumers of actions they can take to reduce their exposure to lead. If lead levels continue to be elevated after anti-corrosion treatment is installed, the utility must replace lead service lines.

Because virtually all lead enters water after it leaves the main system to enter individual homes and buildings, the LCR is the only drinking water regulation that requires utilities to test water at the tap. This also means that individual homes will have different levels of lead in their tap water due to the age or condition of pipes, plumbing materials and fixtures or other factors. For this reason, customer awareness and education are important components of the LCR and state and water utilities lead reduction programs.

EPA plans to propose regulatory changes to the LCR in the following areas by early 2006:

  • Monitoring: To ensure that water samples reflect the effectiveness of lead controls, to clarify the timing of sample collection and to tighten criteria for reducing the frequency of monitoring.
  • Treatment Processes: To require that utilities notify states prior to changes in treatment so that states can provide direction or require additional monitoring. EPA will also revise existing guidance to help utilities maintain corrosion control while making treatment changes.
  • Customer Awareness: To require that water utilities notify occupants of the results of any testing that occurs within a home or facility. EPA will also seek changes to allow states and utilities to provide customers with utility-specific advice on tap flushing to reduce lead levels.
  • Lead Service Line Management: To ensure that service lines that test below the action level be re-evaluated after any major changes to treatment, which could affect corrosion control.
  • Lead in Schools: The agency will update and expand the 1994 guidance on testing for lead in school drinking water. EPA will emphasize partnerships with other federal agencies, utilities and schools to protect children from lead in drinking water.

In addition, the agency will convene a workshop in mid-2005 to discuss actions that can be taken to reduce the lead content of plumbing fittings and fixtures. EPA will also promote research in key areas, such as alternative approaches to tap monitoring and techniques for lead service line replacement.

More information on the National Review of LCR Implementation and Drinking Water Lead Reduction Plan is available online at http://www.epa.gov/safewater/lcrmr/lead_review.html.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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