EDF Health

Fixing America’s lead in water crisis must be a priority for Congress

Eric Jjemba, Health Legislative Intern, Joanna Slaney, Legislative Director, and Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

Last week, over 100 House members led by Representatives Paul Tonko (D-NY), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Daniel Kildee (D-MI), Gwen Moore (D-MI), and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking that she prioritize funding for full lead service line (LSL) replacement in “any major infrastructure legislation moving through the chamber.” Additionally, a group of 8 medical and health associations led by the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter of their own urging Congressional leadership “​​to fully fund this proposed public health measure with $45 billion.” These letters highlight the broad support around treating America’s lead in water crisis as one that necessitates federal action. EDF, and many others, have advocated  for $45 billion in funding to fully replace the more than 9 million remaining LSLs in the country.

For too many families in this country, turning on the faucet for water essentially means drinking through a lead straw. This hundred year old legacy problem of LSLs impacts communities across the nation, but it disproportionately harms already overburdened communities– those that experience racial, economic, and environmental disparities together. To make sure that necessary assistance reaches those that need it most, including low-income communities, communities of color, and rural communities, the federal government needs to adequately fund full LSL replacement across the country.

EDF applauds the members of Congress and key public health organizations that are continuing to push for this investment, of which we have frequently outlined the clear and tangible benefits. Among these are:

  • Protecting health, especially for children, who are likely to have their brain development impaired by lead, contributing to learning and behavioral problems and lower IQs. While children of color and those from low-income families remain at the greatest risk of lead exposure, adults are also at risk of heart disease – even at low exposure levels. 
  • Reducing disparities by advancing equity for low-income communities and communities of color (including small and rural ones) that may lack the capacity to pursue federal funds, have not developed an inventory of their LSLs, and would not otherwise have the resources to do the work.
  • Creating good paying jobs in construction and plumbing through shovel-ready work. Most communities have a good sense of where many of the LSLs are in their water systems, meaning this work can get off the ground quickly.

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Getting chemical safety back on track 5 years after TSCA reform

Five years ago, President Obama signed into law the Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which overhauled the country’s chemical safety law to better protect people from toxic chemicals.

In a welcome change to the dismal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reform anniversaries during the Trump administration, this year we are able to highlight some signs of progress we have seen from the Biden EPA that are getting chemical safety back on track.

Though significant challenges remain and lots of work lies ahead to repair the damage done by the former administration and advance a broader vision of health protection for everyone, here are five ways the Biden administration has started to turn things around on chemical safety:

1. Naming leaders committed to scientific integrity and public health protection

With Michael Regan at the helm of EPA, the agency is already miles ahead of where it stood in the last administration. The critical position for overseeing TSCA implementation at EPA is the leader of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Fortunately, a chemist with deep experience on TSCA and other chemical issues from her time on Capitol Hill, Dr. Michal Freedhoff, has been confirmed for the role.

Both Regan and Freedhoff have made strong statements supporting a return to scientific integrity and transparency – which are critical needs to building back trust. Dr. Freedhoff specifically cited how the Trump White House forced EPA scientists to weaken their assessment of the dangerous chemical trichloroethylene, an egregious example of political interference in science-based decision-making.

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Momentum is building to fund lead pipe replacement across the country: New video

Joanna Slaney, Legislative Director and Sam Lovell, Communications Manager. 

As Congress pursues infrastructure legislation, it’s clear that replacing lead pipes is a priority issue. This is welcome news for our health, the country’s infrastructure, and the economy. We are glad to see the attention on this issue from Congress and from the Administration with the inclusion of funding to fully replace lead pipes in the President’s American Jobs Plan.

And it’s no wonder there is growing interest in this initiative, the latest polling from the Navigator shows support for funding lead pipe replacement at 83% nationally – including 73% of Republicans, 80% of Independents, and 91% of Democrats. This echoes earlier polls which have found similar overwhelming bipartisan support

As EDF has written before, a $45 billion investment in lead pipe replacement over ten years would:

  • Protect public health by enabling water systems around the country to quickly begin eliminating the LSLs to protect residents.
  • More than pay for itself. Fully replacing lead service lines across the country would yield more than $205 billion in societal benefits over 35 years — a 450% return on the investment – due to prevented heart disease deaths from adult lead exposure.
  • Permanently upgrade infrastructure by facilitating critical upgrades to water distribution systems in a way that protects residents from increased lead in their drinking water when the LSL is disturbed.
  • Reduce disparities by enabling utilities to fully replace LSLs, thereby resolving equity concerns that utilities currently face in replacing the lead pipe on private property.
  • Create jobs for the plumbers and contractors who will perform the LSL replacements. This is shovel-ready work that involves construction and plumbing crews conducting the replacement.

With bills in both the House and the Senate focusing on funding lead pipe replacement, it’s important we keep pushing to ensure the federal government follows through on getting the lead out of our drinking water. 

See EDF’s new video that explains why lead service line replacement is important, and why it’s a no-brainer for the federal government to invest in.

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California water utilities fear the unknown when it comes to lead service lines

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director.

Last month, two California trade associations submitted disconcerting comments to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the agency considers what to do with the revised Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) published in the waning days of the Trump Administration. The associations – the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) and the California Municipal Utilities Association (CMUA) – represent 90% of the state’s drinking water utilities.

The trade associations are asking EPA to allow water utilities to tell the agency, the state, their customers, and the public that they have no lead service lines (LSLs) even when they know it may well be false. This would seriously undermine one of the most important positive aspects of the revised LCR – the service line inventory. California’s unusual definition of a “user service line” has been a long-running problem: it does not include the portion of the service line on private property. This definition is narrower than the federal one – and even the state’s definition of an LSL that has been in place for more than a quarter century.

Under EPA’s revised LCR, utilities can only claim that they have no LSLs – and thus avoid the need to comply with the rule’s more protective sampling and corrosion control requirements for systems with LSLs – if they are confident there are no LSLs based the entire length of the service line, including the portion on private property. The two state trade associations are asking EPA to put the burden of determining the composition of this portion of the service line entirely on the customer, allowing a utility to ignore a lead pipe if the customer does not provide the information. This approach will render the inventory effectively useless and misleading.

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10 ways the incoming FDA Commissioner should protect people from toxic chemicals in food

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director.

The FDA’s critical role in the COVID-19 pandemic has brought intense interest in whom President Biden will nominate to lead the agency as its new commissioner.

While COVID-19 is the priority, the FDA obviously has many vital other responsibilities. Though it doesn’t get that much attention, one of the important roles of the agency is to protect the public from unsafe chemicals in food. Frankly, their record has been disappointing, but the new administration has an opportunity to fix some key problems that scientists and doctors have been warning us about for years.

Here are ten things the new FDA Commissioner should do to keep unsafe chemicals out of our food. The list ranges from actions on specific chemicals to broader reforms.

  1. Stop letting industry decide for themselves, in secret, whether chemicals are safe and can be added to food. EDF, represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety, have sued the agency to close the dangerous “Generally Recognized as Safe” loophole.
  2. Systematically reassess dangerous food chemicals it has allowed to be used in food based on new information. The FDA approved the use of many chemicals in food decades ago, and we now have evidence that some of these are unsafe. A chemical shouldn’t be given a forever approval. There needs to be a systematic process to review the scientific evidence, especially when new risks come to light.
  3. Ban the use of perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel, from use in plastic packaging and equipment that comes into contact with food. Perchlorate gets into food, and exposure is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, infants, and young children, as it has been linked to developmental delays, reduced growth, and impaired learning abilities. We’ve sued the FDA to get this chemical out of food, and the case is pending.
  4. Comply with its 60-year-old Congressional mandate to look at the cumulative effect of chemical exposures people have when deciding whether to approve the use of related chemicals in food. EDF’s investigation of 900 approval decisions found that just one followed this common-sense mandate. The reality is that no one is exposed to just one chemical – so the agency shouldn’t be analyzing chemicals’ safety as if that were the case. FDA must respond to a petition filed by EDF and other organizations demanding that the agency follow the law and assess chemicals as classes.
  5. Drive down levels of heavy metals in food. Over the last decades, evidence has emerged of concerning levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium in food consumed by children, such as rice, juice, and root crops like sweet potatoes and carrots. The FDA should move quickly and aggressively on its new commitment to set limits on heavy metals in food children eat and should also set limits for other food.
  6. Use modern science when evaluating if a chemical poses a health risk. The FDA is stuck in the past by relying on outdated, less accurate scientific methods and ignoring the evolving information we now know about chemical exposure. You wouldn’t insist on driving a car the Flintstones drove just because that was the first car ever.
  7. Prohibit lead from being added to materials that contact food, such as the tin that lines metal cans, and tighten limits for lead in bottled water. EDF’s analysis of FDA data found lead in 98% of certain canned fruits compared to 3% in fresh or frozen types. We’ve sent a formal petition to FDA requesting it immediately take action to ban these harmful and unnecessary uses of lead. Though it’s not a food safety issue, the FDA should also reject a challenge to its decision to ban lead acetate in hair dye. That challenge has put the FDA decision on hold, meaning that people are literally still putting lead on their head!
  8. Prohibit ortho-phthalates from being added to food packaging and processing equipment. These chemicals are known to disrupt hormones and harm brain development. The FDA is significantly overdue in meeting its legally required deadline to make a decision based on a petition from 2016 by EDF and nine other consumer, public health, and environmental groups to ban these chemicals.
  9. Be more transparent about the decisions it is making on chemicals in food. Information about FDA decisions should be publicly available without a Freedom of Information Act request and a months-long wait to learn more about agency actions on the chemicals in our food supply.
  10. Take aggressive action on harmful PFAS in food packaging and processing equipment. PFAS (Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) can provide water and grease resistance to paper and paperboard and can also leach into food. Growing evidence links PFAS to a wide range of serious health effects – from developmental problems to cancer. And now we know that many types of PFAS bioaccumulate in the body.
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A closer look at FDA’s “Closer to Zero” plan to reduce for heavy metals in children’s food

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

This month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its “Closer to Zero” action plan to reduce exposure to heavy metals in foods for babies and young children. The plan, released in response to a recent House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform report and the introduction of the Baby Food Safety Act in both the House and the Senate, is a step forward since it commits the agency to specific actions and general deadlines for the first time. However, there is room for improvement, specifically the agency should:

  1. Explicitly consider the cumulative effect of heavy metals on neurodevelopment when setting limits.
  2. Move up deadlines for draft action levels for arsenic and cadmium;
  3. Be consistent in messaging that there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood;
  4. Define what “as low as possible” and “children’s food” means as soon as possible;
  5. Be transparent by posting testing data quickly; and
  6. Add milestones for compliance verification with action levels and preventive controls.

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