New Federal Rules on Lead in Water Fail To Protect Consumers, E.P.A. Told

May 22, 1991 2 min read

Washington--The Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule governing the amount of lead that may exist in drinking water does little to protect consumers against unhealthy levels of the metal, members of the Congress told agency officials at a hearing this month.

“The new rule will mean continued lead exposure, and continued unnecessary loss of intellectual capacity for millions of American children,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment.

The subcommittee’s May 10 hearing was in response to the agency’s new rule, which had been announced only days earlier.

The rule, which was required under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1986, was supposed to update the agency’s current standard, which permits no more than 50 parts per billion of lead in drinking water.

But with the new rule, the agency has set a national goal--but not a requirement--that no more than 15 parts per billion of lead be in the tap water of at least 90 percent of homes.

Utilities in large cities will have six years to meet the new ceiling by using chemicals to reduce the acidity of their water, a method that lowers the amount of lead leached from pipes. If this fails to work, they will get another 15 years to replace water-service lines made of lead.

Heated Exchange

Exposure to large amounts of lead has been linked to a variety of physical problems and learning disabilities in children. The epa believes that lead in drinking water contributes between 10 percent and 20 percent of total lead exposure in young children.

At the hearing, members of the committee criticized the agency for not establishing an absolute standard for lead levels at the tap.

In a heated exchange, Representa8tive Gerry Sikorski, Democrat of Minnesota, asked William K. Reilly, the agency’s administrator, if a mother and her baby could be assured that their tap water would be safe.

“She can have 90 percent protection under our rules in six years,” said Mr. Reilly.

“Under your rules, she ain’t got no protection,” Mr. Sikorski responded.

Earlier, Mr. Reilly said that the new rule is “10 times” more effective than the current rule because it will eliminate 95 percent of the sources of unhealthy levels of lead. To ensure that all water taps are lead-free would be impractical, he said.

“We must keep environmental costs in line with the risks they produce,” Mr. Reilly said. “The epa lead rule does that.”

Mr. Waxman, noting that the agency’s water program has been beset with problems, such as ineffective enforcement, said he would introduce legislation that would establish a new lead standard.

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 1991 edition of Education Week as New Federal Rules on Lead in Water Fail To Protect Consumers, E.P.A. Told