The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday proposed a stricter rule on lead in drinking water that would require that all lead service lines in the country be replaced within 10 years, and would lower the current lead action level in drinking water from 15 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.
More than 9.2 million American households have water connections that include lead piping, according to the White House. Lead moves from the pipes into the water when the plumbing experiences corrosion, which is most severe when the water is acidic or has low mineral content. There is no safe level of lead, which is a toxic metal with wide-ranging health effects, including neurotoxic effects. In children, lead exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, slow development, lower IQ, and cause learning, behavioral, speech, and hearing problems. In adults, it can increase the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, and kidney damage.
The EPA estimates that the rule will generate between $9.8 billion to $34.8 billion in economic benefits each year based on health improvement, including higher IQs in children, healthier newborns, lower cardiovascular risks in adults, and a reduction in care for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
But, ripping out and replacing lead pipes will not come cheap. The EPA estimates that it will cost $20 billion to $30 billion to replace the pipes over 10 years. Currently, there is $15 billion available to find and replace lead pipes from the 2021 infrastructure law. The White House notes that there is also an additional $11.7 billion in general-purpose funding through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which can also be used for lead pipe replacement.
In addition to lowering the lead action level and removing remaining lead pipes, the new rule will also help identify lead piping, spur improvements for lead testing, and require more public outreach when lead levels are found to exceed the action level, including offering communities more filters that remove lead.
The rule is part of a larger effort by the Biden administration to reduce lead exposure in children and advance environmental justice. Lead exposure disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.
“Lead in drinking water is a generational public health issue, and EPA’s proposal will accelerate progress towards President Biden’s goal of replacing every lead pipe across America once and for all,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “With collaboration and the focused actions proposed today, EPA is delivering on our charge to protect all Americans, especially communities of color, that are disproportionately harmed by lead in drinking water systems.”
The EPA is accepting comments on the proposed rule for 60 days and could finalize it sometime next year.