National Center for Health Research’s Public Comments on The Environmental Protection Agency’s Proposed Rule: Use of Lead Free Pipes, Fittings, Fixtures, Solder and Flux for Drinking Water
[Docket #: EPA-HQ-OW-2015-0680]
The National Center for Health Research is a nonprofit think tank that conducts, analyzes, and scrutinizes research, policies, and programs on a range of issues related to health and safety. We do not accept funding from companies that make products that are the subject of our work.
We support the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish labeling requirements to indicate which plumbing products meet the current “lead-free” standards for use with potable water and to require manufacturers of these materials to comply with these requirements. The EPA’s proposed rule would hold manufacturers, distributors, and retailers involved in providing drinking water for human consumption to comply with standards dictated by law.[i] We encourage the EPA to require industry to meet high standards that reduce risk of harm to adults and children who use water in this country.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was originally passed by Congress in 1974 to protect consumers by regulating the United States’ public drinking water supply. It required lead-free plumbing for all installation and repairs to drinking water systems. It further authorizes the EPA to set national health standards for drinking water.[ii] In 2011, Congress enacted the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act (RLDWA) to amend a section of the SDWA. This Act reduced the maximum amount of allowable lead in plumbing materials from 8.0% to a weighted average of either 0.25% or 0.2%, depending on the type of product (i.e. wetted surface of pipes vs. solder and flux products). These changes became effective on January 4, 2014, and thus plumbing products have been required to meet this more stringent standard since then.[iii]
However, the law did not include any mechanisms to communicate or enforce these standards. The EPA’s proposed new requirements would help to enforce the current law and communicate to plumbing professionals and consumers which products are safe to use in drinking water systems, by requiring labeling of lead content and an enforcement system for manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.
As the EPA draft guidelines state, the toxicity of lead is well-documented.[iv] Lead is a toxic metal that disrupts brain development.[v] Lead exposure has been linked with reduced IQ and educational attainment as well as increased antisocial behavior. Furthermore, exposure to lead before birth increases the chances of low birth weight, which increases the risk of numerous health problems.[vi] Early exposure to lead can also increase the risk for childhood obesity in addition to diabetes, heart disease, or stroke in adulthood.[vii]
There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe. The EPA, CDC, and World Health Organization all state that there is no safe level of lead in the blood and that lead poisoning is preventable.[viii] [ix] [x] As little as a 2µg/dL blood lead level is associated with increased death due to heart attack and stroke.[xi] Children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to lead as their brains are not fully developed. Thus, smaller amounts of lead will have a greater effect prenatally and in childhood when compared to adults. Young children absorb 4-5 times the amount of lead that an adult ingests from the same source.[xii]
Consuming lead through drinking water is a real risk. Most homes built before the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes. Some major U.S. cities still have 100% lead piping connecting water from utilities to homes and businesses. Lead is still found in some interior water pipes and in pipes connecting a home or business to the main water pipe in the street. When water fixtures that contain lead corrode, this lead can enter drinking water.[xiii] A recent report found that 5,363 community water systems, serving over 18 million Americans, exceeded the established lead limits for water.[xiv]
Due to myriad risks of lead exposure, regulations pertaining to lead in drinking water should reflect the highest standards, particularly when these standards are already required by law. Thus, we support the EPA’s initiation of a performance standard for labeling that clearly conveys to users which products comply with the law. We urge the EPA to require the specific phrase “lead- free” on both package labeling and product marking to communicate this information clearly and explicitly. Given the labeling requirement, it is necessary for the EPA to require product certification to adequately enforce this standard. It is also important to educate consumers about these requirements, and we applaud the EPA’s release of an online guide on the identification of lead-free certification marks in order to educate the public and those affected by the law.[xv]
Because of the serious risks of lead exposure, we support the EPA’s efforts to require that products meeting the lead-free requirement are certified and labeled properly. We also support efforts to ensure successful implementation and enforcement of the SDWA’s redefined standards for lead-free products. Although the EPA estimates total costs of implementation of the proposed rules to be between $8.5 and $12.9 billion for a three-year period, the economic and public health benefits of this rule are much greater. Researchers estimated that in 2008, childhood lead exposure resulted in $5.9 million in medical costs and an additional $50.9 billion in lost economic productivity resulting from reduced cognitive potential.[xvi]
For plumbing devices that EPA is considering to exempt from labeling, it is important to ensure that the products would not come into contact with water that could be returned to potable water systems.
Failing to set a high standard and enforce compliance creates a disincentive for the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of plumbing materials to reduce lead levels in these products. The EPA has a responsibility to set high standards for industry so that consumers are not inadvertently exposed to toxic chemicals that harm them.
In conclusion, we strongly support the EPA’s efforts to establish labeling requirements and assure compliance with lead free standards for plumbing products intended for potable water systems. These regulations will help professionals, including manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, to more easily identify lead free materials and prevent the use of those that are not. Ultimately, this will reduce consumers’ exposure to lead in drinking water and help to prevent its serious, detrimental, and often irreparable health effects.
The National Center for Health Research may be reached through Dr. Megan Polanin at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (202) 223-4000.
[i] Federal Register (2017, January 1). Environmental Protection Agency’s Proposed Rule: Use of Lead Free Pipes, Fittings, Fixtures, Solder and Flux for Drinking Water. Retrieved from https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/01/17/2017-00743/use-of-lead-free-pipes-fittings-fixtures-solder-and-flux-for-drinking-water.
[ii] Environmental Protection Agency (2004, June). Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-04/documents/epa816f04030.pdf.
[iii] Environmental Protection Agency (2013, October). Summary of the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act and Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from http://www.iapmort.org/Documents/epaLEADFAQs%2010-13.pdf.
[iv] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2007, August). Toxicological Profile for Lead. Retrieved from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp.asp?id=96&tid=22#bookmark07.
[vi] Zhu, M., Fitzgerald, E.F., Gelberg, K.H., Lin, S., & Druschel, C.M. (2010). Maternal Low-Level Lead Exposure and Fetal Growth. Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(10), 1471-1475.
[vii] Nye, M.D., King, K.E., Darrah, T.H., Maguire, R., Jima, D.D., Huang, Z., Mendez, M.A., Fry, R.C., Jirtle, R.L., Murphy, S.K., & Hoyo, C. (2016). Maternal blood lead concentrations, DNA methylation of MEG3 DMR regulating the DLK1/MEG3 imprinted domain and early growth in multiethnic cohort. Environmental Epigenetics, 2(1).
[viii] Environmental Protection Agency (2017, May 10). Ground Water and Drinking Water: Basic Information about Lead in Drinking Water. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water.
[x] World Health Organization (2016, September). Lead poisoning and health: Fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs379/en/.
[xi] American Heart Association (2016, September). ‘Safe’ Blood Lead Levels Linked To Risk Of Death. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/09/060918192146.htm.
[xii] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Regulation (2010, August 20). Lead Toxicity: How Are People Exposed to Lead? Retrieved from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=7&po=6.
[xiii] Plumbing Manufacturers International. Lead in Plumbing. Retrieved from https://www.safeplumbing.org/health-safety/lead-in-plumbing.
[xiv] Natural Resources Defense Council (2016, June). What’s In Your Water? Flint and Beyond. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/whats-in-your-water-flint-beyond-report.pdf.
[xv] Environmental Protection Agency (2015, March). How to Identify Lead Free Certification Marks for Drinking Water System & Plumbing Products. Retrieved from https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=P100LVYK.txt.
[xvi] Trasande, L. & Liu, Y. (2011). Reducing the Staggering Costs of Environmental Disease in Children, Estimated at $76.6 Billion in 2008. Health Affairs, 30(5): 863-870.