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EPA Proposes Changes To Rule On Lead In Drinking Water

Courtesy of CDC
The EPA is proposing to require water systems with lead above 15 parts per billion to annually replace at least 3 percent of their lead service lines right up to individual homes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing some major changes to a longstanding rule that regulates lead in drinking water.
The EPA said its Lead and Copper Rule has not been “substantially updated” since 1991. The agency is proposing to require water systems with lead above 15 parts per billion to annually replace at least 3 percent of their lead service lines right up to individual homes. Long-term exposure to high lead levels can cause health problems like kidney and brain damage, especially in children, who are more at-risk to lead overexposure than adults.

Jim Gulliford, the EPA’s regional administrator for Iowa and three other states in the Midwest, said this change is an improvement. The current rule requires water systems to do a partial replacement, replacing 7 percent of just their portion of the lead service lines, which he said doesn’t help individual homes.

“So clearly this rule, by eliminating the entire lead line from the utility to the home, will be much more protective of the people that live in that home,” Gulliford said.

But Mae Wu, the senior director of health and food for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this brings up some concerns about the amount of time it will take to fully take care of problems with lead.

“The partials are bad and we want them to ban partial lead service line replacements,” Wu said. “I think that what EPA is saying is the 3 percent can’t include partial, but it still doesn’t answer the question of how they think that letting utilities take 33 years to replace all their lead service lines is somehow protective when you’re leaving generations of kids still vulnerable to lead.”

The EPA called its improvements to the current Lead and Copper Rule a “proactive and holistic approach” to protect communities and ensure water utilities will act quickly when they find problems with lead. Wu said the NRDC agrees that the 1991 rule needed to be overhauled.

“All you need to do is look at what happened in Flint, [Michigan], what’s happening in Newark, [New Jersey] and what’s happening all across the country, where there are lots of cities that have problems with their drinking water,” Wu said.

The proposal calls on community water systems to tackle lead in drinking water by making a list of their lead service lines publicly available and requiring water systems to follow new sampling tactics. Within 24 hours of finding a sample of lead over 15 parts per billion, water systems would be required to notify customers and regularly communicate with them. 

Additionally, the proposal creates a new “trigger level” of 10 parts per billion for lead, which Gulliford said “compels water systems into early action.”

“By finding and fixing sources of high levels, we can better protect our children’s health and also communities that are at risk,” Gulliford said.

The EPA already has an “action level” for lead, which prompts water systems to take specific measures to lower their lead levels if they reach or exceed 15 parts per billion. The agency’s “trigger level” would prompt early action, including working on ways to fix the source of high amounts of lead.

“Under the proposal, if a system is above the trigger level of 10 parts per billion, but below the action level of 15 parts per billion, they would be required to work with their state to set an annual goal for replacing lead service lines,” said Jeff Robichaud, EPA Region 7’s water division director. “They’re also required to conduct outreach to encourage homeowner participation in the system service line replacement program.”

Robichaud said small water systems that have lead levels above the trigger and action levels will have more flexibility in how they treat and replace their lead service lines.

The EPA expects to have a 60-day comment period on the proposed rules once they’re published in the Federal Register.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, all children need to be tested for lead at least once before they turn six years old. Data shows 38 children tested in 2017 had blood lead levels between 25 and 45 micrograms per deciliter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher is considered an elevated blood lead level for children.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.