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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a rule that would require water systems across the country to replace millions of lead pipes within 10 years.
This move would accelerate progress toward the Biden administration's goal of eliminating 100% of lead pipes; Exposure to this chemical is linked to significant health and developmental problems, especially in children. Under the EPA's proposal, pipes must be replaced within 10 years, regardless of lead levels in tap water samples or other drinking water samples. According to the proposal, additional time could be granted "in limited circumstances" to some systems that need a complete system replacement.
The Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes the EPA to establish regulations for public water systems, and the Lead and Copper Rule was established in 1991 to reduce exposure to lead in drinking water. It was revised in 2021, usually with more detailed and stringent requirements.
The new proposal would strengthen the ways in which the standard addresses lead in drinking water, improving the way water systems are tested for levels and reducing the level of action of the substance, or the threshold that requires additional enforcement activities. Water supply systems would also need to show steady progress in replacing lead pipes, with a minimum of 10% of lead pipes replaced each year, with some minimal exceptions.
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EPA can enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act with civil penalties or fines." We can't survive without water. Yet in millions of homes, in millions of children, water has been supplied by a poisoned pipe," said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and clean water advocate, during a briefing hosted by the EPA.
Experts agree that no level of lead exposure is safe. Excessive exposure can increase the risk of cancer, stroke, kidney disease, and other health problems in adults. It is especially harmful to children; Even low levels of lead can negatively affect their growth and development, and exposure in childhood can lead to long-term damage, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"We can't see the lead in the water, we can't taste it, we can't smell it. But it has quietly and innocuously undermined the promise of generations of our children," said Hanna-Attisha, who worked in Flint, Michigan, during the city's water crisis. "This proposed rule, these improvements, ensure that in the not-too-distant future, there will never be another city and another child poisoned by its pipes."
New lead pipes have been banned in the U.S. since 1980, but there are still 9.2 million lead pipes in the country, according to EPA estimates. The two states with the highest proportion of pipes that need to be replaced are Illinois and Rhode Island, where a quarter or more of the pipes need to be replaced. It is estimated that 14 per cent of pipes need to be replaced in New Jersey and 11 per cent in Michigan. According to the EPA, the national average is around 8%.
A 2021 analysis by an environmental nonprofit found that more than half of the population drank from water systems where lead levels higher than those recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics had been detected.
"This is a public health issue that, unfortunately, has spanned generations and has disproportionately affected low-income and minority communities," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said at the meeting. "Everyone in this country should be able to turn on the tap to get a glass of water and know that it's safe to drink."
It is estimated that it will cost billions of dollars to comply with the proposed rule, but a cost-benefit analysis submitted with the initiative suggests that the benefits would be four to ten times greater. And the benefits are largely focused on public health prevention, Regan said: Protection against IQ loss among children, preventable deaths and illnesses and more. "These benefits are priceless," he said.
The Biden administration has dedicated $15 billion to the elimination of lead pipes through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, and there is an additional $000.11 billion in general funding available through the State Drinking Water Renewal Fund that can be used for these types of projects.
"Lead poisoning is preventable," Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said at the meeting. "This is a problem we can solve, and we will do it to prevent more children and families from facing it." EPA will collect public comments on the proposed rule for 60 days and hold a public hearing in mid-January.