Report Criticizes EPA Efforts To Collect Lead In Drinking Water Data

EPA has been slow in collecting from states required data on lead levels in drinking water and, as a result, lacks the information it needs to evaluate how effectively a lead rule is being implemented and enforced nationwide, according to a report announced on Jan. 26 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

When testing in the District of Columbia during 2003 revealed that more than 4,000 households had elevated levels of lead in their drinking water, the ensuing publicity prompted questions about how well local drinking water systems are protecting consumers from lead contamination nationwide. In response, EPA launched a broad examination of the implementation of drinking water regulations it issued in 1991 -- known as the Lead and Copper Rule -- to determine whether elevated lead levels are a national problem.

EPA issued the rule as part of its efforts in implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act, and established testing and treatment requirements to control lead and copper in public water supplies. Responsibility for ensuring safe drinking water is shared by EPA, the states, and, most importantly, local water systems. In general, EPA sets standards to protect drinking water quality and to ensure the proper operation and maintenance of public water systems. EPA also oversees state implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and applicable regulations where states have assumed primary responsibility for enforcement. The states ensure that local water systems meet EPA and state requirements, provide technical assistance, and take enforcement action, as necessary. In addition, the states collect information on the results of drinking water monitoring, among other things, and report the information to EPA. At the local level, public water systems operate and maintain their facilities in accordance with federal and state requirements, periodically test the drinking water to ensure that it meets quality standards, install needed treatments and report required information to the states.

EPA's data suggest that the number of drinking water systems with elevated lead levels has dropped significantly since testing began in the early 1990s. However, EPA's database does not contain recent test results for more than 30 percent of large and medium-sized community water systems and lacks data on the status of water systems' efforts to implement the lead rule for more than 70 percent of all community systems, apparently because states have not met reporting requirements, according to GAO. In addition, EPA's data on water systems' violations of testing and treatment requirements are questionable because some states have reported few or no violations. As a result, EPA does not have sufficient data to gauge the rule's effectiveness.

Implementation experiences to date have revealed weaknesses in the regulatory framework for the lead rule, according to GAO. For example, most states do not require their water systems to notify homeowners that volunteer for periodic lead monitoring of the test results. In addition, corrosion control can be impaired by changes to other treatment processes, and controls that would help avoid such impacts may not be adequate. Finally, because testing indicates that some "lead-free" products leach high levels of lead into drinking water, existing standards for plumbing materials may not be sufficiently protective. According to EPA officials, the agency is considering some changes to the lead rule.

On the basis of the limited data available, it appears that few schools and child care facilities have tested their water for lead, either in response to the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988 or as part of their current operating practices, according to GAO. In addition, no focal point exists at either the national or state level to collect and analyze test results. Thus, the pervasiveness of lead contamination in the drinking water at schools and child care facilities -- and the need for more concerted action -- is unclear.

Among other things, GAO recommends that EPA improve its data on key aspects of lead rule implementation, strengthen certain regulatory requirements and oversight, and assess the problem of lead in drinking water at schools and child care facilities. In commenting on a draft of this report, EPA generally agreed with GAO's findings and recommendations.

The adverse health effects associated with exposure to lead can be severe, including delays in normal physical and mental development in infants and young children, and damage to kidneys and reproductive systems for the population at large. Although rarely the sole cause of lead poisoning, lead in drinking water can be a significant contributor to a person's total exposure -- and can account for as much as 60 percent of the exposure for infants who drink baby formula or concentrated juices mixed with water. Because children are most vulnerable to adverse health effects from lead exposure, the adequacy of controls over lead in water supplies serving schools and child care facilities is particularly important.

In March 2005, GAO issued a report -- District of Columbia's Drinking Water: Agencies Have Improved Coordination, but Key Challenges Remain in Protecting the Public from Elevated Lead Levels that focused on the lead contamination problem in the District of Columbia's drinking water supplies.

The latest report, Drinking Water: EPA Should Strengthen Ongoing Efforts to Ensure That Consumers Are Protected from Lead Contamination, can be accessed at http://www.gao.gov.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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