EDF Health

Latest federal data on lead in food suggests progress made in 2016 was fleeting

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

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Total Diet Study (TDS) is an important source of data for both the agency and the public to estimate exposure, track trends, and set priorities for chemical contaminants in food. EDF analyzed TDS data for samples the agency collected from 2003-2013 in our 2017 report to reveal that lead in food was a hidden health threat. In follow-up blogs using TDS data from 2014-2016, we reported that overall trends for detectable rates of lead appeared to be on the decline, especially in 2016. In our analysis, we summarized that the trends were both good news and bad news for children because there were stubbornly high rates of detectable lead in baby food teething biscuits, arrowroot cookies, carrots, and sweet potatoes.

In this blog, we analyze the latest lead in food TDS data, released by FDA in August, and we take a new look at the trends. Overall, the 2017 data reversed the progress in 2016, largely driven by the percent of samples[1] with detectable lead in prepared meals nearly doubling from 19% to 39%. The good news is that fruit juices continued their dramatic and steady drop in samples with detectable lead, from 67% in 2016 to 11% in 2017. When we compared results for baby foods to similar samples of regular fruits and vegetables, the most notable finding was that baby carrots and peeled and boiled carrots had significantly lower detection rates than baby food carrot puree. Additionally, we were surprised to find that 83 of 84 samples of canned fruit had detectable levels of lead.

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Where are Illinois’ lead pipes? Chicago Water has nearly 60%, and small systems don’t know.

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

Chicago is the epicenter for lead service lines (LSLs) in the United States. In a report submitted to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) in April, Chicago Water reported having 392,614 LSLs – 75% of the total service lines in its water system that serves 2.7 million people living in the city and the city’s 125 suburbs. The number of LSLs is over three times higher than any other city. For additional context, this number represents 58% of the known LSLs in Illinois and 6% of the estimated 6.1 million LSLs in the country.

Chicago Water also reported an additional 120,760 service lines as unknown material that may be lead. Only 7,299 (2%) of its total service lines are made of something other than lead.

These numbers are based on the second year of mandatory reporting that IEPA makes publicly available. Earlier this year, we summarized the first year of reporting. In the second year of reporting, IEPA improved the program by allowing CWSs to separately report lines of unknown material where the utility was confident they were not LSLs – most likely because the lines were installed after the date the CWS stopped allowing use of lead. So the remaining lines of “unknown material” were more likely to be lead. In addition, all community water systems (CWSs) in the state reported in the second year.[1] Given these improvements, we looked more closely at the data.

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Taking on the lead challenge: State and community action accelerates across the country

Sam Lovell, Project Manager and Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director.

In January, we reported on the tremendous progress made by states and communities in 2018 to replace lead service lines (LSLs) – the estimated 6.1 million lead pipes across the country that connect homes and other buildings to the water main under the street. At that time, our tracker stood at 95 communities and 16 states working to replace LSLs.

Half a year later, and the total number of communities (including municipalities and water utilities) EDF has learned of that are leading the way has swelled to 181.[1]

  • 7 communities located in Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin have publicly announced that they completely replaced all known LSLs.
  • 108 communities have publicly set a goal of eliminating LSLs on public and private property, totaling more than 381,000 LSLs. Nearly ¾ of these communities are served by the investor-owned utility, American Water’s, operations in Missouri (34 communities), Indiana (27 communities), and Pennsylvania (19 communities). For the remaining states, Wisconsin is leading the way with 11 communities followed by Michigan with five; Colorado and Massachusetts with two; and Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington each with one.
  • 66 communities are publicly taking steps to replace LSLs but have not yet set a goal of full replacement. These communities include 15 in Wisconsin; 12 in New York; 11 in Illinois; seven in Michigan and Massachusetts; five or fewer in Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia; and Washington, D.C.

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Lead from new “lead-free” brass faucets? An update on progress

Tom Neltner, J.D. is the Chemicals Policy Director and Lindsay McCormick is a Program Manager.

[Update: On 10/23/19, the NSF committee responsible for revising NSF 61 tentatively agreed to tighten the limits on lead leaching from new faucets and drinking fountains. The committee will move forward with a formal vote and, if approved, will receive public comment on the proposed changes.]

Last year, we discovered and reported in a blog, that some new brass faucets that meet existing standards and are labelled “lead-free” can still leach significant amounts of lead into water in the first few weeks of use. Here, we answer some questions that have come up and provide an update on efforts to revise the NSF/ANSI 61 standard to better protect and inform consumers.

Last November, the committee responsible for revising the NSF/ANSI 61 standard convened a group to consider an optional certification for faucets that meet a more protective limit. A study of more than 500 models of faucets showed that 73% of faucets leach less lead into water and can meet a limit that is five times more protective for children. However, currently there is no easy way to identify these “lower lead” models. The optional certification would enable consumers, schools, and child care facilities to identify and purchase faucets that leach less lead to drinking water.

Unfortunately, as described later in this blog, representatives of the brass faucet manufacturers have worked to block the optional certification. As of August 2019, the committee has not decided whether to move forward with a proposal for the optional certification to receive public notice and comment. If the committee fails to move forward, we anticipate that some major retailers that sell brass faucets and other major buyers such as school districts and builders would use their leverage to set higher standards in their purchasing specification that favors models performing better on the NSF/ANSI 61 lead leaching test.

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Denver Water proposes innovative plan to remove an estimated 75,000 lead service lines in 15 years

Lindsay McCormick, is a Program Manager. Tom Neltner, J.D., is the Chemicals Policy Director.

Update (9/10/19): Denver Water is currently taking comment on its final proposal through October 10, 2019.  Denver Water will present feedback received to EPA and CDPHE. If you would like to weigh in, you can submit comments here.”

Yesterday, Denver Water’s board approved its proposed “Lead Reduction Program Plan” to fully replace the estimated 75,000 lead service lines (LSLs) in their system within 15 years.  The plan is an innovative solution that will remove the primary source of lead within Denver Water’s system, while avoiding the use of orthophosphate that can further exacerbate nutrient pollution problems in rivers, streams and oceans, an issue EDF’s Ecosystems team is working hard to solve.

As proposed, Denver Water would fund full replacement of LSLs through water rates, bonds and sales of new connections to the system, hydropower production and other sources rather than have individual property owners contribute.  In addition, the utility’s proposal to provide filters to residents until their LSLs are replaced represents a model other communities should consider based on the effectiveness of their ongoing pilot.  Before implementing the plan, Denver Water will need to receive approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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ASDWA releases useful guidance to help states develop lead service line inventories

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

As we have explained in past blogs, it is critical that states have rough estimates of how many lead service lines (LSLs) each drinking water utility in the state may have in order to develop sound policy decisions and set priorities. Congress recognized the importance of LSL inventories when it directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 to develop a national count of LSLs on public and private property in the next round of the 2020 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey. States have a crucial supporting role in the Needs Survey since it is the basis of allocating State Revolving Loan Funds to the states.

This month, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) released a useful guidance document to help states develop LSL inventories. The guidance builds on the lessons learned from:

  • Mandatory surveys conducted by California, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin;
  • Voluntary surveys conducted by Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington; and
  • Responses to requests for updated Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) service line preliminary materials inventories conducted by Alabama, Louisiana, Kansas and Texas.

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