EPA Proposes to Remove Lead Pipes from Water Service Lines

The proposal would require water utilities in the United States to replace all lead and specific galvanized service pipes within 10 years.

According to the Biden-Harris Administration, up to 10 million American households connect to water through lead pipes and service lines. Because of the dangers associated with lead exposure through water pipes and paint, the Administration created the Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan in 2021.

In accordance with that plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced the Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI) proposal, which would require water utilities across the U.S. to replace 100% of lead and certain galvanized water service lines in 10 years or less. The proposed rule is an improvement of the agency’s 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, which regulates lead and copper levels in drinking water.

To comply with the proposed rule, utility companies must replace a minimum of 10% of lead water pipes servicing their community annually to reach 100% completion in the 10-year timeframe.

The rule would also lower the lead action level identified through water testing from 15 µg/L to 10 µg/L, and require states, water utilities, and communities to locate lead pipes currently servicing the public.

In addition, the EPA proposes to revise public education requirements for water systems to increase awareness about lead in drinking water and its potential health risks.

Moreover, if lead levels exceed the action level, the proposed rule would also require utilities to immediately reduce lead exposure while simultaneously working to replace all lead pipes. Additionally, customers with elevated lead in their drinking water would have access to filters certified for lead reduction.

If the EPA finalizes the proposed rule, the agency can enforce the new regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The finalized rule would draw funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which earmarked $50 billion to support upgrades to the nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure — including $15 billion for lead service line replacement and $11.7 billion for Drinking Water State Revolving Funds.

So far, the EPA has awarded over $3.5 billion for lead water line replacement across the U.S.

Natalie Exum, Ph.D. an assistant scientist in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says, "This is huge. This bold step is the right one to take so that we can correct this public health issue that has been neglected for decades. The timeline to accomplish this will be a challenge for cities, but this public health emergency requires urgent action."

Exum tells Healthnews that the challenges water utilities may face include the sole responsibility of both finding the lead service lines and replacing them on water systems.

"This is a massive effort for utilities that requires strong outreach and community engagement work with residents to undertake these replacements," Exum explains. "Another challenge is that lowering the action level for lead will challenge utilities to reduce lead exposures (i.e., corrosion control) while concurrently working to replace all lead pipes."

Exum says the EPA estimates that 9.2 million lead service lines serve water to properties in communities across the United States.

"These properties are both public and private in nature, including residential, schools, etc., so the number of people is hard to estimate, but it is certainly more than 9 million," Exum adds.

The EPA plans to host an informational webinar for the public about the proposed LCRI on December 6, 2023. The agency will also hold a virtual public hearing on January 16, 2024.

How to identify lead water service pipes

The EPA says people should contact their water utility or a licensed plumber to determine if the pipe that connects their home to the water main or service line is made of lead. The utility can also provide information on lead levels in water test results.

In addition, water utilities are required to provide an initial inventory of their lead water service lines by October 16, 2024. This inventory can help consumers identify lead service lines.

However, according to the Louisiana Department of Health, a person can:

  • Identify a lead pipe with a magnet, as a magnet will not stick to lead.
  • Also, if a person scrapes a small area on the pipe and it appears shiny, the pipe is made of lead. A dull appearance in the scraped area means the pipe is galvanized steel.

How to reduce lead exposure from drinking water

To help reduce exposure to lead from water, the EPA says that before drinking tap water, flush the water pipes by turning on the faucet and allowing water to run. How long a person should run the tap water depends on whether the home has a lead service line. Customers can contact their water utility to learn about recommended flushing times in their area.

In addition, because hot water may contain higher lead levels, use cold water for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula.

The EPA also suggests people should keep their faucet screens or aerators clean and free from debris and ensure any water filters used are certified to remove lead.

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