Recently, nearly 40 environmental and public health advocates including NYLCV sent a letter to the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee (CHPAC) concerning lead in drinking water. According to the EPA website, CHPAC is a “body of external researchers, academicians, health care providers, environmentalists, state and tribal government employees, and members of the public who advise EPA on regulations, research, and communications related to children’s health.”
The letter urges the CHPAC to recommend that the EPA make fundamental changes to the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) that regulates lead levels in drinking water and block the Trump administration’s attempted revisions to the Rule. The EPA is expected to make a decision on the LCR by December 16, 2021, determining whether the approach to reducing lead exposure in homes and schools will be significantly altered. According to the advocates, the LCR has failed to significantly address lead in drinking water for the past 30 years, and the Trump administration’s revisions to the LCR will only worsen the issue rather than repair it.
Lead in drinking water made national news in 2014 when residents of Flint, Michigan were discovered to have been exposed to toxic levels of lead, resulting in elevated blood lead levels and major health issues.. Despite current regulations that mandate 15ppb as the standard for lead levels in drinking water, there is no known level of safe lead exposure, and elevated amounts can be closely linked to neurological development issues such as learning disabilities and impaired cognitive function. This issue of elevated blood lead levels, particularly in children, disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
One fundamental problem with the LCR is its disregard for the varying nature of lead levels in drinking water outlets and the sparse testing it requires of these outlets. The LCR currently only requires outlets to be tested once every three years, and often in only one room in a small proportion of houses of a community, leaving room for dangerously elevated lead levels to be missed and allowing people to unknowingly consume unsafe water.
What is deemed as “safe” under the LCR is also problematic in that what the Rule considers to be a safe level of lead, 15 parts per billion (ppb), is higher than the CDC’s estimation of only 5 ppb . This disparity between the LCR and CDC standards is resulting in over sixty-one million people drinking water from systems that have over 5 ppb of lead detected, putting them at a greater risk for lead poisoning and significant health issues. Not only does the LCR continue to put people at risk for elevated blood lead levels, but it also fails to educate the public on the impacts of consuming water with elevated lead levels, with communities such as Flint being left unaware of lead in their own drinking water before it was reported in the media.
Beyond these initial issues with the LCR, the Trump administration revisions threaten to slow down lead service line replacements, the most common method by which lead leaches into drinking water, extending the timeline from 14 years to 33 years for pipelines that consistently show elevated lead levels. Not only would they slow down replacements, but they may also make small water systems legally able to decide to not replace service lines at all, despite the health risks to the community. These revisions would also not mandate schools to alert parents to elevated lead levels found in schools, nor would they require remediation of water outlets found to have elevated lead levels.
To combat the current threat the LCR poses to the health of communities afflicted with elevated lead levels in their drinking water, NYLCV and 38 environmental organizations are asking the CHPAC to urge the EPA to reconstruct the entire Rule. More specifically, recommended changes include:
- requiring corrective action for all water systems that test higher than 5 ppb,
- reducing the timeline of lead service line replacements to ten years,
- incentivizing schools to install certified point of use filters to remove lead levels and frequently test all water outlets, and,
- finally engaging in comprehensive teaching on the impacts of elevated lead levels in drinking water and how families can reduce their exposure.
NYLCV and its allies will be monitoring what the EPA decides on December 16, 2021 so stay tuned for more information on this important subject.
Submitted by Michaela Stones