Public Health Protection under the EPA Lead and Copper Rule

Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou and Dr. Marc Edwards

It is generally safe to assume that, when it comes to contaminants in drinking water, consumers are protected by regulation and proactive water utilities.

One noteworthy exception is the federal law promulgated to protect the public from lead at the tap. Known as the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), this law splits responsibility for minimizing exposures between utilities and consumers. The rationale for this “shared responsibility” approach is that in the majority of cases lead leaches into water from lead service lines (LSLs) (i.e., the pipes that connect water mains to individual homes) and lead-bearing home plumbing materials (e.g., lead solder, leaded brass). These sources of lead are often partly or fully inside the home – LSLs and lead solder were used routinely until 1986, and the use of leaded brass will continue to be legal until 2014. Moreover, differences in plumbing and water usage (e.g., volume, flow), make lead leaching in every house unique. Under the LCR, utilities are required to monitor a small number of homes considered “high risk” for lead in water, but consumers are responsible for having their own water tested and for adopting health-protective water-use practices that minimize the risk of exposure.

When utilities detect elevated lead levels in more than 10% of the homes they sample, they must tell consumers how to avoid exposure by, for example, flushing stagnant water before use and avoiding consumption of hot tap water (especially for reconstituting infant formula). They must also implement a LSL replacement program.  Although full LSL replacement is the only way to eliminate the risk from lead pipes, the LCR requires utilities to replace only the portion of a LSL that they own. The consumer-owned portion of the line is left in place, unless homeowners agree to pay for its removal, which can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Through a grant from the Public Health Law Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we conducted a study to identify gaps in existing policies on water sampling to measure lead levels, replacement of water lines that contain lead, and public education aimed at reducing exposure to lead at the tap. Our research has produced four key findings:

  1. The LCR’s monitoring requirement allows utilities to conduct testing in ways that can miss serious lead-in-water problems in their jurisdictions. This can lead to prolonged exposures by consumers who assume that their water is safe.
  2. Partial replacement of LSLs does not always reduce lead corrosion, either in the short- or long-term, and can sometimes even make the problem worse.
  3. In the vast majority of cases, consumers do not replace their portion of a LSL because of the cost.
  4. If the health risks of partial LSL replacement were clarified, more homeowners would be inclined to pay for lead pipe replacement, or at least consider the option more seriously.

Ensuring a safe, healthy home begins with understanding the risks and the opportunities to mitigate them. What should you know?

  • Virtually all US homes have leaded brass plumbing, and millions have a LSL or leaded solder.
  • Your utility’s compliance with the LCR does not necessarily mean that your own water is safe to drink in relation to lead.
  • Use of a filter (faucet or pitcher) certified to remove lead is an effective precaution. For additional measures, visit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website (http://water.epa.gov/drink/info/lead/lead1.cfm)
  • If you have a LSL, or a partially-replaced lead pipe, make sure to take steps that will minimize your risk of exposure.
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