EPA tells Rep. Israel a Household Action Level for lead in drinking water will come “later this year”

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

In early 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first committed to developing a level that would provide context for those trying to assess an infants’ risk from lead in their drinking water.

An infant’s developing brain is extremely vulnerable to lead. Many parents rely on formula made from drinking water to feed their children. So if that water contains lead, the child is likely to be harmed.

A “Household Action Level” would help parents and public health officials know when lead in the drinking water reaches a level likely to produce an “elevated blood lead level” in an infant who is fed formula. This information can help parents and communities make informed choices about how to protect their children.

So we were pleased to see Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-NY) tweet about EPA's response to his questions regarding the Household Action Level. As a member of the House subcommittee that funds the nation’s water programs, Israel asked the agency to provide an update on the agency’s efforts to release a Household Action Level for committee record.

EPA’s written response: “The public will have the opportunity to review the draft Household Action Level when it is submitted for independent external peer review later this year.” (page 341 of pdf)

This is a welcome development since there was concern that the household action level would get tied up in the EPA’s long overdue overhaul of its flawed drinking water regulations. A proposed update isn’t expected until sometime in 2017.

In the aftermath of the drinking water crisis in Flint, there has been a growing awareness about the presence of lead in drinking water around the country. Communities and individuals are responding to the lessons learned now—not next year. There is a lot of work to be done.

A recent USA Today investigation revealed that some 2,000 water systems have failed to meet the EPA’s existing lead action leve since 2012. An estimated six to ten million homes still receive their drinking water through lead pipes. Many residents just don’t know if they are at risk.

As communities tackle these issues, they need guidance. When should a family invest in an in-home filter? How urgent is to replace these pipes?  A household action level can help communities and families decide what to do, and when to do it.

A lot has changed in the 25 years since the EPA issued its lead in drinking water regulations. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. The EPA has set its goal for the maximum containment level at zero, but achieving it won’t be easy.

A household action level alone will not achieve EPA’s goal, but it is a step in the right direction that is needed now. Hopefully, EPA will honor its commitment to Rep. Israel and issue a household action level for public review this year.

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