A stream of water is poured into a clear water glass.

Safe Drinking Water Act

Lead is a high­ly tox­ic heavy met­al that pos­es seri­ous risks to human health, even at low lev­els of expo­sure. Chil­dren exposed to lead face espe­cial­ly dire health risks, includ­ing severe neu­ro­log­i­cal and devel­op­men­tal prob­lems. The Safe Drink­ing Water Act (SDWA) lim­its expo­sures to harm­ful con­t­a­m­i­nants, includ­ing lead, and requires the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) to estab­lish pri­ma­ry drink­ing water reg­u­la­tions for pub­lic water sys­tems. Under the SDWA, the EPA must review its stan­dards for drink­ing water every six years and adhere to an anti-back­slid­ing pro­vi­sion that requires each revi­sion to drink­ing water stan­dards to be at least as pro­tec­tive as the for­mer regulation. 

Pur­suant to the SDWA, the EPA reg­u­lates lead under the Lead and Cop­per Rule, pro­mul­gat­ed in 1991. The rule requires water util­i­ties to replace lead pipes when lead con­cen­tra­tions exceed 15 parts per bil­lion (ppb) in at least ten per­cent of the sam­pled water.

2017-2021

  • Novem­ber 2019

    In Novem­ber 2019, the EPA pub­lished a pro­pos­al revis­ing the Lead and Cop­per Rule. The pro­pos­al made some improve­ments to the cur­rent reg­u­la­tion, includ­ing sup­port for full lead ser­vice line replace­ment over par­tial lead ser­vice line replace­ment and new require­ments for lead test­ing in schools and child­care facil­i­ties. How­ev­er, the pro­pos­al also includes pro­vi­sions that roll back impor­tant pub­lic health pro­tec­tions, includ­ing a reduc­tion in the annu­al rate that water util­i­ties must replace ser­vice lines from sev­en per­cent to three per­cent. In addi­tion, the rule pro­pos­es estab­lish­ing a con­fus­ing trig­ger” lev­el of lead con­cen­tra­tions of 10 ppb at which water util­i­ties must reeval­u­ate their water treat­ment process­es, but retains the same action lev­el at 15 ppb for requir­ing util­i­ties to replace lead pipes.

  • Feb­ru­ary 2020

    In Feb­ru­ary 2020, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Xavier Becer­ra led a coali­tion of ten state attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing com­ments on the pro­posed changes. In their com­ments, the attor­neys gen­er­al high­light that the EPA’s pro­posed reduc­tion in the annu­al replace­ment rate for lead pipes may vio­late the SDWA’s anti-back­slid­ing pro­vi­sion that pro­hibits the EPA from weak­en­ing exist­ing drink­ing water stan­dards. The attor­neys gen­er­al point out that decreas­ing the cur­rent replace­ment rate would give water dis­tricts up to 33 years to replace lead ser­vice lines that test above action­able lev­els. The attor­neys gen­er­al also rec­om­mend that the EPA reduce the action lev­el for replac­ing pipes to below 15 ppb, giv­en the sig­nif­i­cant advance­ments in lead detec­tion, ser­vice line replace­ment tech­niques, and the over­whelm­ing evi­dence of the seri­ous health risks of lead exposure.

  • Jan­u­ary 2021

    In Jan­u­ary 2021, the EPA pub­lished its final rule revis­ing the Lead and Cop­per Rule. The final rule reduces the annu­al replace­ment rate of lead pipes to three per­cent and main­tains the action lev­el at 15 ppb for requir­ing lead pipe replace­ments, large­ly ignor­ing the con­cerns of the attor­neys general.