Drinking water tests have revealed a shocking 1.8 million Americans are exposed to toxic levels of lead in their drinking water, according to a new analysis of federal data.
In the most recent round of utility tests, over a thousand community water systems exceeded safe levels of lead, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Envirofacts database. The numbers are almost identical to a 2015 analysis by the Natural Resource Defense Council.
At these levels, under the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, utilities are required to not only warn their customers about toxic levels, they are required to take further steps to reduce pipe corrosion, like replacing lead pipes. Yet clearly not enough action has been taken in the last two years to reduce the dangerous levels of lead in American drinking water.
The most recent analysis was released a couple of days before Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt kicked off his promised "war on lead." On February 15, Pruitt invited his fellow Cabinet members to a "lead summit" at EPA headquarters to discuss a strategy for updating the nation's water infrastructure.
"Lead poisoning is an insidious menace that robs our children of their intellect and their future," Pruitt said in a letter addressed to Cabinet heads.
"For decades, efforts have been underway on many fronts to reduce and respond to lead exposure and contamination... It is time to bring these efforts together and explore ways to increase our collaboration and partnerships with states, tribes and localities."
Yet despite Pruitt's supposed commitment to the cause, the Trump administration's proposed 2018 budget cuts the EPA's programs for lead abatement. If the administration does not follow through with their promise, however, public health will suffer.
"This widespread exposure to lead in drinking water poses a clear and present danger to the health of America's children," said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, one of the foremost authorities on children's environmental health.
"It will reduce children's IQs, shorten their attention spans and disrupt their behavior, and it is ultimately a threat to America's future. It is an exposure that needs urgently to be ended."
There is robust research and strong scientific consensus that any amount of lead exposure during childhood is harmful. That's because lead is a powerful neurotoxin that even in small doses can compromise the intellectual development of children beyond repair.
In 2009, to save children from even a little exposure, California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal of 0.2 parts per billion for lead in drinking water – a significant cut compared to the 15 parts per billion that are currently allowed. While this is an important step, Landrigan says we need other states to follow suit.
"I am delighted that a few large drinking water systems across the country and a few states are moving forward aggressively to protect children against lead in drinking water, but I am very distressed that hundreds of community water systems across the country are still delivering water with elevated levels of lead," said Landrigan.
And it doesn't look like those community water systems are going to improve any time soon. While the Trump administration's new budget would increase funding for some infrastructure projects like lead pipe replacement, it also eliminates water quality programs and guts the EPA's funding for clean and safe water by a fifth. In addition, it would replace the EPA's funding for outreach to children by almost $4.5 million, or 69 percent.
The only way to get rid of lead in our drinking water permanently, is to replace all the lead pipes in the nation. But until that happens, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest three steps to avoid lead in your drinking water:
1. Run your faucet in the mornings to flush out all the water has accumulated lead overnight.
2. Use only cold water for cooking.
3. Use a water filter that is certified to remove lead.
Happy (safe) drinking!