MAC: Mines and Communities

EPA's Lead and Copper Rule Found to Be Inadequate

Published by MAC on 2006-01-31

EPA's Lead and Copper Rule Found to Be Inadequate


31st January 2006

A report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) lead and copper rule is inadequate and may be putting public health at risk.

The GAO is the investigative branch of the U.S. Congress. The 1991 rule aims to minimize lead and copper in drinking water by reducing water corrosivity. Lead and copper enter drinking water primarily through plumbing materials. Exposure to lead and copper may cause health problems ranging from stomach distress to brain damage.

Lead is particularly dangerous for children, who retain about 68 percent of the lead that enters their bodies while adults retain about one percent. Children exposed to lead experience low birth weight, growth retardation, mental retardation, learning disabilities, and other effects.

After revelations about extremely high levels of lead in the drinking water in Washington, DC in 2004, the GAO report was asked to evaluate the effectiveness of federal regulations for lead and copper by Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, and Representatives John Dingell of Michigan and Hilda Solis of California, both Democrats.

The GAO report released last week found that, "EPA claims of widespread, national compliance with the rule are not supported by data."

The report identifies "…significant and longstanding gaps in the amount of information available..." that impair the agency's ability to oversee implementation of the lead rule. For example, even after an effort to update its data following the Washington, DC case, the EPA still does not have test results on over 30 percent of the community water systems.

Through June of 2005, the EPA did not have any information regarding the implementation of actions required to reduce lead in drinking water for more than 70 percent of the nation's community water systems.

In 2000, the EPA rulemaking regarding data collection requirements stated that this data was the only means available for EPA to evaluate progress in removing lead in drinking water. GAO found that the EPA had not followed up on missing implementation data, and that it has been slow to act on potential underreporting of violations.

"Few schools and child care facilities have tested their water supplies for lead - or adopted other measures to protect users from lead contamination" and "no focal point exists at either the national or state level to collect and analyze test results," the GAO said.

The GAO recommended that homes and other sites of highest risk for lead be used for sampling. Homeowners who participate in tap sampling should be notified of test results to protect their health.

GAO evaluated EPA's compliance data and determined that 49 large and medium water systems were in violation of the action level and appeared to be on reduced monitoring schedules. A reduced monitoring schedule reduces the chance that high lead levels will be detected and that the public will be warned of a potential health risk.

Controls over when and how treatment changes are implemented should be adopted to avoid increases in lead levels, the GAO advised.

Plumbing standards should be updated, reflecting availability of low-lead fixtures and GAO's finding that some products currently classified as "lead-free" leach high levels of lead into drinking water.

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