Clean drinking water is one of the key commitments included in the President’s American Jobs Plan — a part of the administration’s “Building Back Better” proposal to get communities back on track post-pandemic. The proposal calls for eliminating all lead pipes and service lines that currently carry water to millions of American households every day. This is welcome news for North Carolina, where public health officials and advocates have been working to end child lead exposure for many years, and are coming close to doing so.
Revising federal standards
While the American Jobs Plan moves through Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is already taking steps to address clean drinking water by updating the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which regulates the concentration of lead and copper allowed in public drinking water at the tap.
The proposed revisions to the Rule provide an important opportunity to further safeguard children’s health and end childhood lead exposure. Among the proposed changes is a new requirement to test and remove lead in drinking water in the places where children spend most of their days — schools and child care centers.
Five ways to improve the proposed EPA rule
NC Child and RTI International identified five ways the EPA can strengthen this new requirement:
- Buildings should be tested for lead in water despite age. The proposed rule would only test buildings that pre-date 1988. Some buildings built after 1988 still contain significant lead in plumbing and fixtures. Testing all buildings despite age will ensure that no building poses a considerable risk of lead exposure.
- Second, every drinking water tap should be tested. The results of RTI’s Clean Water for Carolina Kids program reinforce that lead levels vary from tap to tap within the same building. The current proposal calls for testing only two drinking water taps at child care centers and five taps in schools. This would not accurately capture the lead concentration in water that children are actually exposed to.
- Regular testing every one to three years is the best way to protect kids from lead in drinking water. Lead levels in drinking water can change based on seasonal changes in water source and chemistry, plumbing problems like clogged faucets, and infrastructure and building changes. One-time testing is not effective for catching changing lead levels, and can leave children at risk of exposure.
- EPA should make more funding available to support the new testing requirement at schools and child care centers. Funding is needed in order to complete testing without burdening local government budgets and local public water utilities. Additionally, community water systems need funding to educate schools and child care operators about lead in drinking water, and share the testing results.
- The rule needs a stronger action level for lead in drinking water. Without an enforceable, health-based standard for lead in drinking water, we’re stuck with an outdated 15 part per billion action level that does not consider health risks. Parents and school administrators will be concerned and confused when their water tests show lead below the action level, and then learn that their kids are still consuming too much lead. That’s one reason RTI is sharing study data, and NC Child is working with the NC General Assembly to lower the definition of a “lead hazard” in children’s drinking water through House Bill 272.
Important changes to the proposed federal Lead and Copper Rule will better protect children from lead in drinking water in the places where they learn and play. We applaud the EPA’s efforts to slow down the timeline for the proposed changes and to open them up for feedback from communities most impacted by lead in water. If adopted, community water systems will be required to comply with the revised Rule beginning in September 2024.
Action in North Carolina
The good news is that North Carolina is already taking steps to get lead out of children’s drinking water. The Clean Water for Carolina Kids program being led by the NC Division of Public Health and RTI International is an effort currently under way to test and remove lead from drinking water at licensed child care centers. Nearly one in ten licensed child care centers have found lead above the state’s hazard level for young children. The program will begin testing family child care homes next.
The best way to protect kids from lead exposure is to be proactive about getting rid of lead from the places they live, learn, and play. Let’s keep working together towards a lead-free North Carolina.
Editor’s note: This piece was first published by NC Child. It has been posted with the authors’ permission.