EDF Health

Getting lead out of brass and bronze food equipment

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

Many people may not be aware that lead is still added to brass and bronze used to make drinking water faucets and food equipment like coffee brewers and more. This is problematic because lead can leach into the water and beverages from the equipment – putting consumers at risk. As part of EDF’s efforts to reduce exposure to lead from all sources, we have advocated to stop this use of the heavy metal.

Last June, our three-year effort yielded results when the committee responsible for the national consensus standard for plumbing devices, known as NSF/ANSI/CAN 61, made its lead leaching standard five times more protective for endpoint devices – from 5 to 1 parts per billion. Endpoint devices are faucets, drinking water fountains and other devices installed within the last one liter of water distribution systems in a building. For all other plumbing devices, lead is limited to the amount added to the device’s material, 2500 parts per million (ppm) [1], and leaching limit does not apply.

This fall, we turned our attention to lead leaching into drinking water from food equipment such as ice machines, coffee brewers, teapots, and water heaters. We have submitted petitions to NSF International and to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking them to prohibit use of lead in brass and bronze commonly used in these devices.

For food equipment, we leveraged the more protective safety standards for food contact substances in the Food Additives Amendment of 1958. These standards require that additives not be used unless there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from their intended use after taking into account related substances in the diet. It also prohibits use of carcinogens. Lead is unsafe under both these restrictions because it is a carcinogen and no safe threshold has been found for lead in the blood to prevent neurologic development harm in children and heart disease in adults.

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It’s time to eliminate lead from tin coating and solder on metal food cans

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

In October 2019, we reported finding canned foods had a surprising number of samples with lead based on the Food and Drug Administration’s testing results. Almost half of the 242 samples had detectable lead, including a staggering 98% of 70 canned fruit samples.

We suspect that the high lead detection rates are a result of lead in the tin – either added to make an alloy or as a contaminant – used to coat the steel or join steel pieces together in the cans. This lead can then leach from the coating or solder into the food. Light-colored fruits and fruit juices would be more likely to have lead contamination based on a report indicating they are commonly packaged in tin-coated steel cans without a synthetic coating on the inside isolating the food from the tin. The lead detections in the other canned products in FDA’s study could have resulted from flawed synthetic coatings.

In December 2020, EDF and ten health, consumer, and environmental groups[1] petitioned FDA to ban the use of lead in food contact materials such as tin. We also included that FDA should presume that lead was intentionally used when levels in food contact materials are at or above 100 parts per million (ppm) and provided an option for the agency to specifically authorize the use only if:

  • The part of the food contact article that contains added lead does not contact food under intended conditions of use; or
  • No lead migrates into food from the food contact article under intended conditions of use.

Our petition demonstrates that, because lead is a carcinogen that is unsafe at any level in the blood, its use in tin coatings and solder for food cans should be expressly prohibited. The agency posted the petition for public comment and must make a decision how to proceed by June 2021. There is no deadline for comments, but it is best to submit them by April 1 so they can influence the agency’s decision.

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Implications of Home Depot’s lead-based paint settlement and $20 million penalty

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

In January 2017, the outgoing Obama Administration undertook a criminal investigation of Home Depot for alleged violations of the Lead-Safe Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) Rule. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a proposed civil consent decree with Home Depot committing the company to establishing a comprehensive set of detailed procedures designed to ensure compliance with the rules and protect customers from lead poisoning.  The company also paid a fine of more than $20 million in civil penalties – more than any other under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

A federal court will consider accepting the proposed consent decree after reviewing public comments received by January 20, 2021.

The proposed consent decree is important because it:

  • Serves as a reminder that companies that subcontract work to others are responsible for complying with the RRP rule; and
  • Provides a comprehensive template for other retailers and general contractors to adopt to ensure compliance.

The settlement also alerts us of troublesome implications of a new federal policy that limits violators’ ability to direct some of the fines to affected communities for activities such as lead poisoning prevention projects.

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Clear communication about lead service line ownership is difficult – but here’s why it really matters

Sam Lovell, Project Manager.

Any successful initiative to replace lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes connecting the water main under the street to homes – must be built on clear and consistent communications to residents. This will not only accelerate LSL replacement progress and equip people with information that impacts their health – it will also help build trust.

Many residents likely don’t even know what an LSL is, let alone that they need to take proactive steps if they want it fully replaced. In most communities, ownership of the water service line is split between the drinking water utility and the resident. Fully replacing an LSL entails removing the portions of lead pipe both on public and on private property. A partial replacement (when only one of the sides of an LSL is removed – see image below) is an issue because it can spike lead levels in the short-term and does not have the long-term benefit of reduced lead exposure seen with a full LSL replacement.

When describing LSLs and the replacement process, water systems must explain whether they are referring to the full LSL or only one of the sides, and the implications of this for the resident.

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In major step, Chicago announces lead pipe replacement plan – but could it widen the equity gap?

Lindsay McCormick, Program Manager

In September, Chicago took an important – albeit modest – step towards tackling its colossal number of lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes providing drinking water from the main under the street to homes.

With an estimated 389,900 LSLs, Chicago has more than two times as many LSLs as any other city in the country. In fact, Chicago city code mandated their installation until 1986, when Congress banned it.  Since then, the city has largely turned a blind eye to the problem of existing lead pipes – that is, until now.

On September 10th, Mayor Lightfoot announced the city’s new Lead Service Line Replacement Program, acknowledging the problem and taking initial steps towards fully replacing its lead pipes.  While the starting investment is $19 million, Lightfoot estimates the full cost of the program, including restoration and bringing underground sewerage and water infrastructure up to code, at $8.5 billion. The city currently does not yet have the funds – or a plan – to fully cover the cost. Chicago’s move comes just weeks before the Environmental Protection Agency is slated to release its final revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule.  Read More »

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ASDWA provides new recommendations to states and utilities for lead service line inventories

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) released a new white paper to help states and utilities develop more useful inventories of lead service lines (LSLs). The paper builds on guidance the organization issued in August 2019. ASDWA partnered with BlueConduit to leverage that firm’s experience developing a statistical model for Flint, Michigan that accurately predicted which service lines were made of lead, galvanized steel, plastic or copper.

The guidance is timely as EPA prepares to finalize its Lead and Copper Rule revisions. We anticipate those revisions will require utilities to develop – and make public – inventories that identify the location of each service line made of lead or when the material is unknown and may be lead. Utilities would also be required to notify customers annually if they have a lead or unknown service line. Customers who buy a home and open a new water account would also be notified in the first bill.

The ASDWA/BlueConduit white paper encourages utilities to use five principles to best characterize the uncertainty in their inventories:

  1. Ensuring clean data management and organization;
  2. Not accepting all historical records as truth;
  3. Conducting a representative randomized sample of unverified service lines;
  4. Being transparent in public outreach and reproducibility; and
  5. Demonstrating accuracy on “hold-out sample.”

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