The EPA is about to make important changes to the way lead in drinking water is regulated in the United States, and community water systems need to be prepared to respond. The biggest change: The federal lead action level in drinking water is currently 15 micrograms per liter; the upcoming Revised Lead and Copper Rule will lower the lead action level to any detectable amount. The change has serious implications for community water systems: with few exceptions, water systems will be required to identify, remove, and replace all lead service lines in the system, including the privately owned portion of service lines. The mandate also requires the removal and replacement of service lines made of unknown materials.
These updated federal regulations are meant to address the millions of remaining lead service lines in communities across the country. The scope of the problem is sobering: up to 15% of all water service lines in the United States may contain lead, according to the U.S. EPA. And the removal and replacement of a single lead service line costs, on average, between $5,000 and $10,000. Furthermore, this fee does not include the expenses associated with community-wide identification and engineering design.
To comply with this sweeping new rule, community water systems will need to have a plan to fund and coordinate identification, removal, and replacement of lead service lines. In many cases, success will hinge on the effectiveness of public outreach campaigns. In the absence of a dedicated public subsidy for this work, community water systems will also need to be prepared seek out multiple funding streams to meet EPA standards, including (but not limited to) local, state, and federal grants and loans, nonprofit grant funding, and rate funding.
Learn more about MSK’s work on lead service line mitigation
The History of Lead Pipes
In many older homes and buildings, particularly those built before the 1940s, drinking water service lines contain lead pipe and fixtures. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, lead was a popular material for drinking water pipes due to its flexibility and the fact that it does not rust. We now know that lead is a neurotoxin that can cause unacceptable health risks when present in drinking water at any concentration.
Use of lead in drinking water pipes began declining in the 1950s and came to an end in 1991, with the passage of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which banned the use of lead in plumbing materials. However, in older buildings and homes still connected to lead pipes, end users may be exposed to lead in drinking water.
In the United States, public drinking water regulations that address lead pipes are generally based on the Federal Lead and Copper Rule. Since 1983, the U.S. EPA’s regulatory approach has focused on requiring public water systems to report the presence of lead in drinking water pipes (when known) and requiring systems to install and operate centralized treatment to minimize the solubility of lead in the system (corrosion control). The agency has also encouraged homeowners to reduce exposure by flushing their pipes before collecting tap water for consumption and has recommended that homeowners install point-of-use water filters.
The Revised Lead and Copper Rule will require community water systems to continue these management practices—and go a step further. The changing guidelines reflect the fact that existing regulations have mitigated the severity of the problem but have not resolved it.