EDF Health

No Safe Level: Old pipes and paint threaten the health of America’s children

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D.is Vice-President for Health.

Since the crisis in Flint hit the national headlines, the problem of lead exposure from drinking water has come under greater scrutiny. And for good reason. Seven to ten million American homes have water delivered through service lines made of lead pipe – the primary source of lead in drinking water. But the events in Flint also highlight the fact that despite decades of decline in the levels of lead in the blood of American children, we still have a lead problem in this country. Given that there is no safe level of exposure to lead, we have a lot of work to do. The current crisis offers a new opportunity to make significant progress, and we have a record of past achievement to learn from and build upon.

Forty years ago over 13 million young children in American had blood lead levels at or above 10 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). By 2000, that number had decreased to just under a half a million. The greatest reductions made were among low income and children of color who had the highest blood lead levels. As a result of such significant progress, many declared victory and organizations, including EDF, shifted their focus to other environmental health issues leaving considerable work still to be done on lead.

While blood lead levels were declining, scientific evidence was mounting to show there is no safe level of exposure to lead in infants and young children. Studies showed that adverse neurological effects were happening at lower and lower levels of lead exposure. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced the level of lead in blood used to identify those with elevated exposure to 5 µg/dL. Today, approximately 500,000 children have levels at or above 5 µg/dL.

Despite the major declines in children’s blood lead levels at or above 10 µg/dL and decreases in racial and income disparities since the mid-1970s, progress has stalled over the past decade. And still disparities persist. Children living in poverty remain at the greatest risk. Indeed, children in poor households are three times more likely, and African-American children are twice as likely as white children, to have elevated blood lead levels. Read More »

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Household Action Level for Lead in Water: EPA Needs to Release Health-based Estimate

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director.

A new article in USA Today’s series on lead in drinking water shines a light on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) delays in releasing a health-based “household action level” for lead. EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) recommended that the agency develop this number to help parents, in consultation with their pediatrician and public health agency, decide whether to invest in a filter for the water they use to make up their child’s infant formula.

Without a health-based number, people are mistakenly using EPA’s current “lead action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb) as the level below which no action is needed. The problem is that this level has no relation to the health risk. It is based on a provision in the drinking water rule that requires utilities to undertake corrosion control and, potentially, lead service line replacement when at least 10% of worst-case sample results exceed that level.

A year after committing to develop a household action level, it appears tied up in the agency’s long overdue overhaul of its broken 1991 regulation designed to protect people from lead in drinking water. Communities all across the country are raising legitimate concerns about the safety of their water and need proper public health guidance. They should not have to wait on rulemaking for this important information. I know EPA is a regulatory agency that thinks in terms of rulemaking. But first and foremost EPA is a public health agency with responsibility to consumers for the safety of drinking water. Read More »

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Lead service lines must be replaced as soon as possible to protect children

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director.

Two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked me to serve on its new multi-stakeholder workgroup to develop recommendations to improve the agency’s 1991 lead in drinking water rule. I had heard about problems with the rule but was unfamiliar with the details. My efforts to prevent lead poisoning over the past 20 years at the federal, state, and local levels focused on lead-based paint and consumer products. Lead pipes were new to me. Knowing the dangers of any lead exposure all too well, I was happy to help.

What I learned was disturbing. The rule’s shortcomings became clear when a utility representative presented a chart showing the lead levels from homeowner sampling over the years. While few in number, some lead levels in the water were literally off the scale, in the hundreds of parts per billion (ppb). And yet a utility operating a public water system would be in compliance with the rule as long as less than 90 in 100 samples were below 15 ppb. The only required action would be an alert by the utility to the homeowner. It became clear to me that lead could be found in water at extremely high levels, but these spikes—and potentially substantial public health risk—may not be investigated and corrected.

EPA’s own studies confirmed the problem. It turns out that the highest lead levels were often missed because the sampling method focused on the water in the interior plumbing and not the water sitting overnight in the lead service line – the pipe that connects the main in the street to the house. In addition, only 50 or 100 samples every three years were required; too few taken too infrequently to identify problems in a large city in a timely manner. Read More »

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