Environment

Nearly 2 Million Americans Exposed to Potentially Toxic Level of Lead in Tap Water

Children are particularly vulnerable.

Photo Credit: BIGANDT.COM/Shutterstock

Tests by drinking water utilities serving 1.8 million Americans in 45 states detected lead above the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level, according to EWG’s analysis of the latest available federal data.

The analysis was released before EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt hosts a lead summit at the EPA headquarters tomorrow. In testimony to a Senate Committee last month, Pruitt declared a “war on lead,” but the Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget cuts the EPA’s programs for lead abatement.

In the most recent tests of tap water conducted by utilities through the end of 2017, 1,124 community water systems exceeded the action level, according to the EPA’s Envirofacts database. Under the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, the action level is the amount of lead that, if exceeded in more than 10 percent of samples of tap water, requires utilities to take further steps to reduce pipe corrosion and warn their customers.

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Natural Resources Defense Council analysis of lead testing data for 2015 reported that 1,110 community water systems showed lead levels in excess of the action level in at least 10 percent of the homes tested. EWG’s analysis finds that two years later, the number of systems exceeding the action level is essentially unchanged. While the majority of systems that detected lead above the EPA’s action level serve small populations, there are some that provide water for large service areas and populations, including Newark, N.J.; Quincy, Mass.; and Pennsylvania State University.

Although the action level for lead is defined at 15 parts per billion, or ppb, there is strong scientific consensus that any amount of lead exposure during childhood is harmful. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that impairs children’s intellectual development, and alters their behavior and ability to concentrate. The impacts of lead exposure during childhood are permanent.

Because any level of lead in drinking water is dangerous for children, simply complying with the EPA's lead rules doesn't mean that water is safe for children to drink. To address this problem, in 2009 the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, or OEHHA, set a public health goal of 0.2 ppb for lead in drinking water to protect against IQ loss for children. OEHHA said the goal was set “on the basis of new studies relating neurobehavioral deficits to lower lead concentrations in the blood than previously reported.” Public health goals are not legal limits, but represent the levels OEHHA scientists say do not pose a significant health risk. 

“I am delighted that a few large drinking water systems across the country and a few states are moving forward aggressively to protect children against lead in drinking water, but I am very distressed that hundreds of community water systems across the country are still delivering water with elevated levels of lead,” said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York. Landrigan, whose early research in the 1970s helped eliminate the use of lead in paint and gasoline, is one of the foremost authorities on children’s environmental health. 

“This widespread exposure to lead in drinking water poses a clear and present danger to the health of America’s children,” Landrigan said. “It will reduce children’s IQs, shorten their attention spans and disrupt their behavior, and it is ultimately a threat to America’s future. It is an exposure that needs urgently to be ended.”

The administration’s proposed budget would eliminate funding for a program to reduce risks from lead in paint, dust and soil, and eliminate some grants provided to states to carry out lead reduction activities. Although the proposed budget would increase funding for some infrastructure projects like lead pipe replacement, overall it slashes the EPA’s funding for clean and safe water by one-fifth and eliminates some water quality programs. It would also reduce the EPA’s funding for outreach to children and other sensitive populations by almost $4.5 million, or 69 percent.

What You Can Do

EWG recommends that parents take measures to reduce children’s exposure to lead from all sources, paying special attention to old lead paint and lead pipes in their water supply systems.

Public drinking water utilities are required to disclose their water quality testing results to customers. But lead tests performed in your city might not reflect specific lead risks in an individual home.

Consider testing your own tap water if you are pregnant or have young children. You should definitely test your drinking water if your water company says your house or community is served by lead-based water lines, or if lead has already been detected in the tap water in your neighborhood.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends these steps for decreasing lead ingestion from tap water:

  • Run your faucet in the mornings to flush out all the water has accumulated lead overnight.
  • Use only cold water for cooking.
  • Use a water filter that is certified to remove lead.

Ultimately, replacing lead pipes is the only permanent way to remove lead from drinking water. Children’s health advocates, such as the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative, are pushing for the federal government to more vigorously address the lead problem in drinking water. This means speeding up the replacement of aging lead water pipes, paying for the replacement of pipes that run from the street to the home entrances, and requiring water companies to provide local health departments and the general public with more detail about lead problems in their neighborhoods.

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Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., is Senior Science Advisor for Children's Environmental Health at the Environmental Working Group.

Sonya Lunder is a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group. Prior to joining EWG in 2002, Sonya managed a community health intervention at a Superfund site and worked on epidemiology studies at California's Environmental Health Investigations Branch.