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Progress – but too little – on toxic lead water pipes

Using toxic lead to make water pipes seemed like a good idea for the 1,000+ years before we knew that lead was extremely harmful, especially to children’s brain development and also to cardiac health of all people. Now we know that no amount of lead exposure is safe. It is therefore very disappointing that the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulation for toxic lead (and copper) in water and water pipes does not direct more proactive work to remove those pipes.

There are around 6-10 million toxic lead water pipes installed in homes, schools, and workplaces around America (be thankful not to live in the UK where approximately 40% of dwellings have lead pipes or elsewhere in Europe where that number varies from 5 to 50%).

Removing those pipes is a solvable health problem in under a generation and is necessary if we want to remove the threat of lead in drinking water. Former US EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt apparently thought so, declaring a goal of eliminating lead pipes within a decade. We have few similar opportunities – usually some conflicting interest gets in the way or no technological solution exists for the problem. In contrast with lead pipes, we have safer materials with which to replace them, replacement generally costs a few thousand dollars per home, and the work to do it is straightforward construction that requires no new technology and supports good, high-paying jobs.

Recently, the Trump administration finalized a new federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) that is certainly better than the old regulation, but will lead to far less progress in getting toxic lead out of drinking water systems than the country needs. The rule will not achieve the goal of eliminating lead pipes in a generation.

The new rule keeps the action level for lead at 15 parts per billion (90% of the samples must test below 15 parts per billion to remain below the action level). Public health advocates have called for a much lower level. The rule does add a trigger level of 10 parts per billion that results in reexamination of corrosion control measures (a treatment technology that limits lead from leaching out of the pipe and into water) and requires lead pipe replacement if the state requires it.

It’s a little bit like if, instead of having a national mandate for motor vehicles to have seat belts, car models with lower accident rates were given a pass on seat belts and only new Corvettes and other models with high likelihoods of being in accidents had to have them.

Under both the old and new rules if the action level is triggered, the utility must begin replacing lead pipes. Under the old rule, the utility must replace 7% of known/suspected lead pipes in a year but they can count partial line replacements as replaced and they can use repeated testing – instead of pipe replacement - at homes with previous elevated test results as a strategy to get below the action level. After two consecutive, six-month periods of retesting and not triggering that action level, utilities can stop the pipe replacement process, if they have even begun to do so. These and other loopholes basically mean that toxic lead water pipe replacement was rarely mandated.

Under the new rule, the utility must replace 3% of the total known/suspected and unknown pipes annually for two years, but they cannot count partial line replacements as replaced nor can they count retesting as replacement, and they can't stop replacements until they meet that percentage. After four consecutive six-month periods of retesting and not triggering that action level exceedance, utilities can stop the replacement process.

Click here to read the full blog from our colleagues at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center: