EDF Health

Too much cadmium and lead in kids’ food according to estimates by FDA

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a study in April estimating young children’s exposure to lead and cadmium from their diets and identifying food groups that are a significant source of these heavy metals. The study used data from the agency’s Total Diet Study (TDS) program for 2014 to 2016 and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) What We Eat in America (WWEIA) Survey for 2009 to 2014.[1]

The study is a reminder of how pervasive heavy metals are in children’s diets and that, while the levels are relatively low, the cumulative exposure is significant. Based on FDA’s analysis (Table 1 below), we estimate that about 2.2 million children exceeded the agency’s maximum daily intake (MDI) for lead at a given time. The results for cadmium are new and worrisome, with estimated daily intake (EDI) levels that are 3 to 4 times greater than lead. And while FDA has not yet set an MDI limit for cadmium, the average young child exceeds most of the relevant daily exposure limits set by other agencies. Clearly, cadmium warrants greater attention, but note that the evidence of neurotoxicity is still emerging.

Table 1: Young children’s estimated dietary intake (EDI) of lead and cadmium based on FDA’s TDS results for years 2014 to 2016 (based on hybrid method)

Age GroupLead Mean EDI Lead 90th Percentile EDICadmium Mean EDICadmium 90th Percentile EDI
LimitsFDA’s MDI is 3.0No MDL set by FDA. Intake exceeded most limits set by other agencies
1-6 years1.8 µg/day2.9 µg/day6.8 µg/day11.0 µg/day
1-3 years1.7 µg/day2.6 µg/day5.8 µg/day9.7 µg/day
4-6 years2.0 µg/day3.1 µg/day7.8 µg/day12.1 µg/day

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Latest available national data shows increase in blood lead levels for at least 2 million kids

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report summarizing the biomonitoring data from its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Given EDF’s focus on protecting children from lead exposure, we went straight to the most recent blood lead monitoring results. The results are disturbing. As shown in Figure 1 below, after years of progress, in 2015-16 the blood lead levels (BLLs) of more than 2 million young children[1] increased:

  • Average child BLL: 48% BLL decrease from 2007-8 to 2013-14 but only a 3% decrease in 2015-16.
  • 75th percentile BLL (75% of children are below this level): 51% decrease from 2007-8 to 2013-14 but a 2% increase in 2015-16.
  • 90th percentile BLL: 51% decrease from 2007-8 to 2013-14 but an 18% increase in 2015-16.
  • 95th percentile BLL: 45% decrease from 2007-8 to 2013-14 but a 23% increase in 2015-16.

As with the smaller uptick in 2007-08 (which may have been related to the housing crises), it may only be short-term setback, nonetheless it bears careful examination.

Even more disturbing is the Trump Administration’s response to this information. The Administration:

  • Ignored the data in the rosy picture of progress it painted in its recent Lead Action Plan; and
  • Appears to be repeating mistakes of the past by proposing to slash CDC’s childhood lead poisoning prevention budget in half.

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EDF analysis: Lead service lines in Illinois communities

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Building statewide, comprehensive inventories of lead service lines (LSLs) in community water systems (CWSs) is a critical part of any effort to eliminate lead pipes. With a solid inventory, states can conduct a credible needs assessment and engage the public in supporting community efforts to replace LSLs.

In January 2017, the Illinois legislature passed a law designed to reduce children’s exposure to lead in drinking water. It included a requirement that CWSs submit annual reports to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) regarding a “water distribution system material inventory” by April of each year. EDF sees Illinois’s approach to developing an inventory as a model to be considered by other states because it:

  • Requires all CWS to report (unlike Indiana which had a well-designed one-time voluntary survey but only a 57% response);
  • Covers the entire service line (unlike California which ignored the portion of the service line on private property); and
  • Requires annual updates to track progress, especially in reducing the number of service lines with unknown materials (unlike Michigan which requires updates only every five-years).

In August 2018, IEPA released a summary of the first year submissions and has updated it several times. IEPA indicated that 95% of CWSs submitted reports and provided totals of each type of piping material reported with 414,895 LSLs and 1,504,748 of unknown material. At the time, the agency did not provide information on what each CWS reported.

Making totals public is important but does little to engage the public in understanding what the information means for their community. But earlier this week, IEPA published an online tool, which allows residents to search for their water system and download the data for individual reports of the types of materials currently reported by their water system.  EDF also received the information pursuant to a Freedom of Information request. Click here to see the data for all the CWSs in a spreadsheet. We also used an EPA database to identify the 84 CWSs that did not comply with the law.

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Laws in states with the most lead service lines support using rates to fund replacement on private property: New analysis

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

We found no explicit barriers to using rate funds to replace the lines on private property in the 13 we focused on. These states have an estimated 4.2 million LSLs, more than two-thirds of the nation’s total

Lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes that connect a building’s plumbing to the water main under the street – are a significant source of lead in drinking water for those homes that have them. In light of the well-documented benefits to society from reducing children’s exposure to lead, there is a consensus that we need to replace the estimated six million LSLs remaining in the country. It will take time, but it needs to be done.

One challenge to this goal is how to fund replacement of the portion of the service line on private property. Because LSLs extend from under the street to a building, typically about half of the line is on public property and half is on private property. The perception among utilities has been that they do not have the legal authority to use rates paid by customers to cover the cost of replacing the portion on private property because it provides a benefit only to that property owner. This view was reinforced when the Wisconsin Public Service Commission blocked Madison from doing it, forcing the city to use other funds to complete the work. That decision from the early 2000s came before the risks of even low-level exposure to lead were well understood.

Many utilities have therefore taken to replacing only the portion of the LSL on public property when the property owner is unwilling or unable to pay to replace the portion on private property. The practice, often called “partial replacement,” is not only inefficient but can actually exacerbate residents’ exposure to lead. As evidence of the risks of even low-level exposure to lead—and of the society-wide benefits of reducing lead exposure—have mounted and the tragedy in Flint, Michigan made clear the need to replace LSLs, states like Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even Wisconsin, have adopted new laws or policies that have allowed funds from rates, with some limitations, to be used to replace the side on private property. Michigan has gone further and adopted rules mandating the practice, although some utilities have challenged the rule in court.

Given the funding challenge and the trends in the states, EDF partnered with the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School to review the state laws and policies in the 13 states with the most LSLs. Clinic Deputy Director Shaun Goho and law student Marcello Saenz conducted a state-by-state review of the laws, court decisions, and policies. The authors:

Found no explicit barriers to using rate funds to replace the lines on private property. These states have an estimated 4.2 million LSLs, more than two-thirds of the nation’s total. In these states, publicly-owned utilities can act pursuant to existing state legislation by determining that the practice serves a public purpose—protecting public health. Investor-owned utilities can do the same, but typically need approval of the state’s utility commission. While we have not reviewed the remaining states, we anticipate that the state laws and policies are similar to the ones we evaluated.

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New study: Homebuyers and renters take action when told they may have a lead service line

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director, and Lindsay McCormick, Project Manager

The Cornell/EDF study confirmed that potential buyers or renters report being much more willing to take action to replace LSLs when told they have one regardless of disclosure style. However, water testing information that shows levels below EPA’s lead action level may underestimate risk and undermine action on LSLs.

Today, EDF and collaborators at Cornell published a new study that provides insight into how disclosure policies can impact potential home-buyer and renter behavior. This effort builds on a report EDF published in 2017 grading state housing disclosure policies according to their ability to help homebuyers make informed decisions about lead service lines (LSLs) before they sign a sales contract. LSLs are pipes that connect homes to the water mains under the street and are a major source of lead in drinking water. Four states — Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania — and Washington, DC scored an A-. Twenty-one states scored a D or F. The remaining 25 states scored a B or C.

Our analysis was based on a presumption that if potential homeowners are told that a home has an LSL, many would negotiate with the property owner for its removal, whether by having the seller replace it or building the cost into the mortgage to fund the buyer’s replacement. This was a reasonable presumption that underlies why sellers are required to disclose property defects and environmental hazards in many states.

However, we were interested in testing that presumption and exploring how potential homebuyers and renters might respond differently based on how the information is disclosed by a property owner or home inspector. Our objective was to evaluate disclosure styles to assess if the different styles influenced respondents’ perceived risk of the LSL in a home and willingness to act. To conduct the survey, we partnered with Jeff Niederdeppe and Hang Lu of Cornell University’s Department of Communications who recruited 2,205 participants online and gave them one of three scenarios to consider and advised them it would cost $1,000-5,000 to replace the LSL. See Figure 1 below.

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$10 in benefits for every $1 invested – Minnesota estimates benefits of lead service line replacement

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) released a report estimating that investing $4 billion in virtually eliminating lead in drinking water over 20 years would provide societal benefits of more than $8 billion. The state agency only counted the societal benefits from avoiding the loss of IQ points due to children’s exposure to lead.

Replacing lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes that connect a building’s plumbing to the water main under the street – yielded the greatest benefit with an investment of $0.228 to $0.365 billion yielding $2.118 to $4.235 billion in benefits. Replacing lead fixtures and solder had a lower, but still significant, return on the investment.

Based on this analysis, MDH recommended as high priority that the state conduct an inventory of LSLs and that LSLs be removed “at a measured pace” of 20 years. It also recommended undertaking as a medium priority an awareness campaign focused on the danger of lead in drinking water to formula-fed infants younger than nine months old and as a low priority a general public information campaign to prompt homeowners and renters to take action if they have an LSL.

The agency, which includes both the state’s drinking water protection program and its lead poisoning prevention program, prepared the report in response to a provision in a state appropriations law passed in 2017. The report is important because it is the first state assessment we know of, and it reports an impressive return on the investment of more than $10 for every $1 invested in LSL replacement. For these reasons, we took a close look at the analysis and the underlying assumptions.

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