Current and former EPA scientists say the Trump administration is pushing rule changes that could leave Americans exposed to lead in drinking water.
An estimated 15 million to 22 million Americans still drink, and cook with, water that entered their home through a lead pipe — more than 30 years after they were banned.
City water utilities often proclaim that tap water is safe from lead contamination. But a recent investigation by APM Reports shows that lead in tap water remains a public health threat across the country.
Reporters spent months investigating how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors lead levels in drinking water, and the process and people behind the agency's revision of its main lead regulation — the Lead and Copper Rule. APM Reports interviewed 17 current and former EPA scientists and experts, obtained internal memos, and analyzed extensive lead testing data for the first time. The EPA's Scientific Advisory Board is conducting a last review of the Lead and Copper Rule revisions and is expected to make recommendations in a few weeks. That comes amid a Trump administration effort to alter a number of EPA rules during the Covid-19 pandemic, including attempts to roll back fuel-emissions standards and to limit the use of some health data in crafting new regulations.
Here are 11 takeaways from our investigation.
- It's not just Flint: There are millions of lead pipes across the country
Congress banned the installation of lead pipes in 1986 but allowed the ones already in use to remain in the ground. More than 9 million properties, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, still have lead "service lines," which carry water from the street into your home.
- If you have a lead pipe, there's a good chance lead will be in your water
Lead service lines will almost always leach some amount of lead into drinking water. The only way to prevent that is to remove the pipes, which by some estimates would cost $30 to $44 billion nationwide. So far, Congress and presidential administrations of both parties haven't proposed that kind of project.
- The EPA knew lead levels needed to be lower to protect human health
There's no safe level of lead. The toxin is especially dangerous for children; even small amounts in the blood can inhibit brain development and intellectual ability. Lead has even been linked to criminal behavior. As one retired EPA scientist told APM Reports, "How much lead is good for you is zero." The EPA's current "action limit" on lead in drinking water was set primarily because it was a practical and achievable level for utilities, not what was best for human health. An internal EPA analysis, obtained by APM Reports, estimated that the limit would likely need to be 70 percent lower to prevent lead poisoning among young children.
- Instead of replacing pipes, utilities rely on tests and treatments to mitigate lead
Under the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule, city utilities are supposed to add chemical treatments to their water that coat the inside of lead pipes to create a barrier. The failure to add these treatments to the water contributed to extremely high lead levels during the Flint water crisis. Even when they're done correctly, treatments aren't a cure-all. Some lead can still get into the water. The question is how much. That's why testing people's water for lead is critical.
- The Lead and Copper Rule failed to detect Flint
The EPA's regulations didn't prevent an extraordinary event like the Flint water crisis, when lead levels at their peak exceeded 13,000 parts per billion. The city of Flint still managed to produce test results below the action limit of 15 parts per billion.
- The EPA's Flint crisis manager sounded the alarm
Bob Kaplan was promoted by the EPA to help carry out the emergency response to Flint. In 2017, Kaplan wrote a scathing memo — obtained by APM Reports — to agency leaders about the deep flaws in the Lead and Copper Rule. "Even as Flint's lead lines were stripped of protective coating from the corrosive Flint River water, the LCR did not reveal a need of action," he wrote, "indeed, the data tended to allay concerns rather than indicate that swift action was needed." The EPA generally ignored his warnings.
- The EPA has long known that its testing method is flawed
The EPA has known since 2011 that its testing method doesn't adequately measure how much lead can be released by lead pipes. Consequently, the EPA's water experts proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule that would have forced utilities to conduct more rigorous tests. The EPA had those recommendations in hand two years before the Flint crisis.
- The agency ignored its own scientists and sided with utilities
In its first major revision of the Lead and Copper rule, the EPA dismissed the recommendations from its scientists and ceded the process to an ad hoc advisory board with heavy representation from water utilities. Ultimately, the EPA decided to leave its testing standards largely unchanged. Miguel Del Toral, a now-retired EPA scientist, told APM Reports that "industry won" on these regulations. "When you look at what we were trying to do, where we were trying to go and where we ended up in this proposal, it's pretty clear who the winners are," Del Toral said, "and it's not the people."
- Repeated studies show the EPA's testing method is missing high lead levels
In recent years, utilities in Chicago and the state of Michigan used more rigorous testing methods in thousands of homes with lead service lines. APM Reports analyzed the results and found lead levels two times higher on average than the results from EPA's standard procedure.
- Millions may be consuming more lead in their water than previously known
The data from Chicago and Michigan show that many people may be consuming higher levels of lead than the EPA testing method can detect. The levels are probably nowhere near what Flint saw during its lead crisis, but they could still be hazardous to human health. There's nothing especially unique about utilities in Michigan and Chicago — they just bothered to conduct more rigorous testing. If other cities did the same, they would likely find similar levels of lead.
- The Trump administration is rushing to finalize a new Lead and Copper Rule
In the midst of a global pandemic, the EPA is trying to finish revisions to its main lead regulation this summer. Agency scientists say the new plan may be even weaker than current rules. One of the last steps in this process is a scientific review that would normally take months. Instead, the EPA has condensed the review into a few weeks. If the rule is implemented, current and former agency scientists say, it could leave Americans exposed to lead in their drinking water for years to come.
Will Craft email@example.com @craftworksxyz