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With draft report, EPA takes major step to help communities assess risks from lead in drinking water

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Communities around the country are testing their water for lead. But when they get the results, parents, public health officials, housing agencies and school officials have little guidance about what the number means and what actions to take or priorities to set. For lead in dust and soil in homes, child-care and schools, they have health-based numbers that serve as benchmarks for assessing risk. There is no such benchmark for drinking water. As a result, many are using the “Lead Action Level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb) as a surrogate. Yet, this level is based on the effectiveness of corrosion control; it has no relation to the associated health risks of lead exposure.

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) helped fill the void by releasing a draft report that provides three different approaches to setting a scientifically-robust “health-based benchmark” for lead in drinking water. The agency is seeking public comment on the draft and will convene a panel of scientific experts to consider each of the approaches.

The report is a critical step in implementing the recommendations of the agency’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) which called for this type of health-based benchmark as part of an overhaul of the Lead and Copper Rule. The agency went a step further and provides alternatives to consider. We applaud EPA for its action and its rigorous, scientific analysis.

Accounting for the various models and assumptions, EPA developed a range of potential health-based benchmarks that range from 3 to 56 ppb of lead in water that people actually drink. However, you cannot readily compare these values to the typical water testing results reported by utilities or schools. Those tests are based on the first draw of water that has been sitting in the faucet and plumbing overnight and do not necessarily reflect what people drink over the course of a day. Later samples would likely be lower but could be higher if the building has a lead service line, especially if the line has been disturbed. Read More »

Also posted in Drinking Water, Health Science, lead, Regulation| Tagged , , , , , | 2 Responses

Perchlorate regulation: Critical opportunities for EPA and FDA to protect children’s brains

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

All Americans who have been tested have perchlorate in their bodies. Perchlorate threatens fetal and child brain development by impairing the thyroid’s ability to transport iodine in the diet into the gland to make a thyroid hormone, known as T4, that is essential to brain development. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are scheduled to make decisions in 2017 that could significantly reduce exposure to this hazardous chemical.

Based on statements in a new report by EPA, we estimate that at least 20% of pregnant women are already iodine deficient, resulting in T4 levels that put the fetuses’ developing brains at risk. For this population of pregnant women, any perchlorate exposure results in an even greater risk of impaired brain development in their children and potentially a lifetime of behavioral and learning difficulties.

This is why it is critical that our public health agencies take actions to reduce exposure to perchlorate with a focus on this vulnerable population. There are three key decisions to be made in the coming year:

  1. EPA will decide in January 2017 whether hypochlorite bleach, an antimicrobial pesticide, degrades to perchlorate in significant amounts. If EPA agrees it does, the agency must set standards to limit that degradation as part of its 15-year update to the pesticide’s registration. Bleach is a widely-used disinfectant in food manufacturing facilities and likely a significant source of perchlorate in contaminated foods. Research shows that reducing hypochlorite concentration limits degradation and this, coupled with expiration dates on the product would significantly reduce exposure to perchlorate.
  2. FDA will decide whether perchlorate should continue allowing perchlorate to be added to plastic packaging for dry food at levels up to 12,000 ppm to reduce buildup of static charges. The agency has evidence that the perchlorate migrates from the packaging into food, especially when it flows in and out of the container. In response to a lawsuit filed by public interest organizations, FDA told a court that it aims to make a final decision by the end of March 2017. A 2008 report by FDA indicated that almost 75% of all food types are contaminated with perchlorate.
  3. EPA told a court that it will complete external peer review of a dose-response model in October 2017 and sign a proposed rule to regulate perchlorate in drinking water a year later. This model is a critical step in establishing a drinking water standard for perchlorate pursuant to its 2011 determination that an enforceable standard was necessary under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The perchlorate is most likely from contaminated source waters (e.g. from military and defense industry activities and some fertilizer use in agricultural regions) or from degradation of hypochlorite bleach used to disinfect water. EPA acted in response to a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To guide their decision-making, FDA and EPA collaborated to develop a biologically-based dose-response model to predict T4 levels in pregnant women, fetuses, and infants exposed to perchlorate. EDF and NRDC submitted joint comments on the model and the summary report requesting that EPA ensure protection of fetuses during the first two trimesters for pregnant women with serious iodine deficiencies.  These fetuses are particularly vulnerable because their thyroids is not yet functioning. The current fetal model only considers the third trimester when the fetus has a functioning thyroid. The current model fails to adequately protect their vulnerable subpopulations, falling shot of both the EPA's Science Advisory Board recommendation and the Safe Drinking Water Act requirements.

For decades, federal agencies have been charged with protecting children from environmental health risks with the recognition that they are uniquely vulnerable to chemical exposures. The upcoming decisions on perchlorate present critical opportunities to protect what many of us value the most—our children’s health and their ability to learn and thrive to their fullest potential.

Also posted in Drinking Water, Emerging Science, EPA, FDA, Food, Health Policy, Regulation| Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

The Flint Water Crisis Is Not Over and Congress Must Not Leave Them Behind

More than two years since a public health disaster hit Flint Michigan, Congress has yet to provide needed assistance. Some on both sides of the aisle are working to advance help for Flint, but the path forward remains unclear, with little time to spare on Congress’ legislative calendar. Congress must not leave town without taking action to help Flint.

EDF recently joined partners in the environmental community to help support a delegation of community leaders from Flint who came to Washington to lobby for overdue federal aid. Our friends at National Wildlife Federation, along with Sierra Club and many others, helped coordinate an effort to bring these Flint voices to Washington.  The stories from Flint have been well-documented in the press, but to hear them in person is another thing altogether. I am hopeful it had as much of an impact on Capitol Hill as it did those of us who joined their meetings.

Read More »

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Crucial – but unfulfilled – role local code officials have in protecting children from lead

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

The tragedy in Flint, Michigan has reminded us once again how dependent we are on state and local officials to protect us from hidden threats like lead. In hindsight, anyone with a basic understanding of the role of corrosion control in keeping lead out of the water we drink knows that changing the source of that water, especially to one as corrosive as the Flint River, must be done with extreme care. Based on criminal indictments that have been handed down, the officials ignored the federal regulations designed to prevent such a tragedy.

State and local building code officials will have a chance this October to show whether they have learned from Flint. As voting members of the International Code Council (ICC), code officials will cast their ballot on a simple proposal that can significantly improve the protections for children from lead hazards. The proposal by the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) would require that any contractor seeking a building permit to conduct renovations in homes built before 1978 be properly certified to ensure that their work leaves behind no dangerous levels of lead contaminated dust. Read More »

Also posted in EPA, Health Policy, lead, Regulation| Tagged , , , , , , , | Read 1 Response

People deserve to know if lead pipes and paint are present where they live and work

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

We live in an increasingly transparent world. When it comes to the real estate market, companies are mining local government databases to let us know the size of a home, how much it’s worth, and even when the roof was last replaced.

Yet, you can’t find out if the house you might buy could poison your children with toxic lead. Federal law only requires that the seller or landlord reveal the presence of lead paint when you sign a contract to buy or rent a home.

We think that has to change.

People should be able to readily know if lead is present in the paint and water pipes where they live and work when they begin making important decisions, not when they are finalizing the deal. When shopping for a place to live, the best time to learn if there is lead at a property is when it is listed for sale or rent. Some opponents claim that revealing this information invades the resident’s privacy, but the presence of lead is not about anyone’s behavior. Rather, it’s a fact about the house, a legacy of the construction of the building. It is no different from the type of furnace or number of bedrooms.

There are signs of progress. In Washington, DC, the water utility has launched an online map that reveals information that can help improve transparency on lead pipes. Anyone can check online and see what’s known (and not known) about the presence of lead service lines that connect the drinking water main under the street to their home or business.

It’s a model other communities should follow. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made this type of transparency a priority for states and utilities. And the private sector needs to play a role, too — real estate innovators like Zillow and Redfin, who have transformed how we find homes, should include this information in their online listings.

It’s time that people begin to know the possible health impacts of their housing options when evaluating homes to buy or rent.

Also posted in Drinking Water, EPA, Flint, lead, Markets and Retail, Regulation| Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

EPA Closes Loophole in California Rules for Formaldehyde in Wood Products

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

On July 27, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a long-overdue final rule to protect people from formaldehyde off-gassing from composite wood products such as hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard. UPDATE: EPA published the final rule on December 12, 2016.

These products are commonly used to make furniture, cabinets, and flooring. Title VI of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) directed EPA to issue the rule and base it on the 2007 standards set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) with a significant exception; EPA closed a loophole in CARB’s standards by extending them to cover laminated hardwood products.  Such laminated products were the focus of the Lumber Liquidators controversy in 2014.

EPA effectively threaded a needle between the legitimate interests of small furniture and cabinet manufacturers and the need to protect people from the risks posed by formaldehyde. The final rule includes changes from the proposed rule to address concerns that compliance would have been difficult for small businesses that glue a thin layer of wood veneer (a process called lamination) to composite boards that themselves comply with the rule.

EPA concluded it needed to close CARB’s loophole when studies showed that laminating operations (which CARB had exempted) release formaldehyde in excess of the CARB emission standards. EPA’s rule gives laminators using most formaldehyde adhesives seven years to get into compliance. Read More »

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