Federal Policy as a Public Health Solution

Lead in Drinking Water

The EPA partnered with community organizations to host a series of virtual roundtable conversations about the proposed revisions to the Federal Lead and Copper Rule. WHE hosted a Pittsburgh Roundtable on June 3, 2021. These revisions will be the first in decades to these requirements that ensure our drinking water is lead-safe. While we celebrate the opportunity to strengthen the rule, the proposed changes fall short in many ways. The EPA is anticipated to release the final Revised Lead and Copper Rule on December 16, 2021.

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In striving to create health protective standards, the EPA should establish an enforceable maximum contaminant level (MCL)1 and lower the action level to 5 ppb at most.Health experts agree there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

Lead Service Line Replacement and Inventory

Prohibit partial lead line replacements.

The EPA’s Science Advisory Board noted that partial lead line replacements are “frequently associated with short-term elevated drinking water lead levels for some period of time after replacement, suggesting the potential for harm, rather than benefit during that time period.”  According to the CDC, partial replacements “may be linked to increased incidence of high blood level in children.”

Partial lead line replacements, with homeowners often shouldering the cost of the private side replacement, worsen inequity.

Support all systems, especially small systems or those in low-income communities, rural communities, and communities of color, in identifying lead service lines and creating an inventory prior to reaching trigger level or action level.Identifying LSLs and developing an inventory upfront allows communities to quickly take action on dangerous lead levels. Any delay in action is very dangerous to children’s health.
The order of lead service line replacement must take severity of exposure and historically underserved communities into account for prioritization.Water equity, environmental justice and ending childhood lead poisoning hinge on addressing exposure in those areas hit hardest by lead poisoning.
Corrosion Control
The Lead and Copper Rule should require that corrosion control optimize the removal of lead (not just stop at the action level).Health experts agree there is no safe level of exposure to lead. Neither the action level nor the trigger level are health protective standards. Utilities required to use corrosion control treatment need to only reduce lead levels so that fewer than 10% of samples exceed 15 ppb even though we know that any lead level over 0 ppb presents risk. Most utilities stop these efforts to reduce lead levels any further once the required 15 ppb level is reached.
Public Education

Ensure the public knows that lead levels are highly variable throughout a system and all individual taps present a possible risk.

Similarly, ensure the public knows how sampling is done for the lead and copper rule, explaining what the results mean for individuals and families.

Water systems report the 90th percentile value from the lead sampling. This means that any individual tap is not guaranteed to have the reported concentration coming out of its tap. Individuals in both communities that report lead levels below the action level and those that report lead levels about the action level must understand that any individual tap may have unsafe lead levels. Individuals should also have the knowledge and understanding of how the sampling is done.
Ensure communication to the public is distributed in laymen’s terms (not in legal jargon). Communication should also be available from the EPA in multiple languages.In order to give individuals the power and ability to take the steps they see necessary, communication must be easy for the public to understand.
The EPA must proactively educate the public on steps they can take to protect their families (such as flushing water and using filters).Lead poisoning is irreversible, so prevention of exposure is key.
Community Engagement
Require that all systems create a system for community input (i.e. community advisory board).Community advisory committees can serve as a more approachable avenue for ratepayer input and increase transparency with the public.
Affordability and Funding
Ensure water system improvement costs (or lead related costs) are not passed on to rate payers, especially low-income customers.Water and sanitation affordability is well known to be a key component of water and sanitation access. In developed countries like the United States, a non-negligible group of households experiences limited access to drinking water and sanitation due to affordability problems rather than infrastructural inaccessibility. Moreover, unaffordable water and sanitation poses serious public health, wellbeing, and safety concerns. Thus, affordability must be a central tenet in the revisions of the LCR.
Define affordability on a household level, not on a community level.According to Teodoro (2018), “the conventional approach measures affordability as a community’s average cost of water and sewer service as a percentage of that community’s median household income (%MHI), with values <2.0 or 2.5%—4.0 or 4.5% combined—deemed “affordable.” Originally intended as a means of gauging a community’s overall financial capability for purposes of negotiating regulatory compliance, this standard has been widely misapplied to household affordability. As a result, evaluations of household water and sewer utility affordability are inaccurate at best and misleading at worst.”
Utilize federal resources to fund water systems and their improvements.Federal funding for water systems is essential to preserve affordability.
Provide support for water systems and communities to develop a trained workforce, ensuring equitable participation.The lack of a trained workforce is a major barrier to providing safe, clean, drinking water.
Sampling and Filter-First
Require sequential sampling,Long-term sequential sampling can help determine treatment effectiveness on individual lead sources in the home.
Adopt a filter-first approach in schools and childcare centers, and require post-installation testing to ensure the filter is working.Requiring only 5 water samples to be tested in schools and 3 water samples in childcare centers do not tell you enough about the presence of lead in children’s drinking water. There are highly variable results throughout all the outlets in these centers, and there is also lots of variability when outlets are retested. The best way to truly protect the children in these centers from lead is filtering first.
Support Specific Populations and Systems
Regulate small water systems by giving them the support they need, not by giving them exemptions to the regulations.People have a basic right to clean, safe water. Exempting small water systems from certain regulations could potentially infringe on this right. Instead of giving small systems a way out of regulations, give them the support they need to comply with all the regulations that ensure safe, clean drinking water.
Conduct a full environmental justice analysis to ensure that changes to the lead and copper rule (and all regulations) result in an equitable impact to all communities (prioritizing communities of color and low-income communities).Many previous and current regulations have both caused and perpetuated inequity. A full environmental justice analysis intentionally seeks to prevent this.

Toxic Chemical Policy

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was established in 1976 to regulate chemicals in consumer products sold and manufactured in the U.S. The act however is heavily in favor of industry and allows little protection for the consumer.  In fact, the EPA has the burden of proving if a chemical is harmful.

In 2016, Congress passed an important update to TSCA called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (LSCA). The law included a timeline for the EPA to evaluate the safety of chemicals already on the market, increase public transparency for chemical information, strengthen protocol for testing new chemicals and dedicate funding to complete the newly required testing. Additionally, it limits states’ ability to regulate chemicals if the EPA has named it a High Priority chemical or has been deemed safe. Despite this reduction in authority to address toxic chemicals in products, and because most of the chemicals in commerce have not been tested or prioritized by the EPA, some states have implemented highly successful toxic control programs. The reforms, however, are still facing widespread criticism for the testing timelines outlined (such as allowing only ten chemicals to be reviewed per year when there are tens of thousands of untested chemicals on the market).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is another entity charged with ensuring consumer safety and regulates cosmetics specifically. To date, the FDA has limited the use of only 11 chemicals in cosmetics in the United States and only seven chemicals in cosmetic products are banned in the United States.

American toxics policies fall far behind those in places like the European Union, where more than 1,300 chemicals have been banned. To improve these policies, The Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act was introduced in the 2019/2020 federal session to help protect consumer, worker, and environmental health. While Congress did not pass it, it serves as a model for future proposals in coming years. This act worked to phase out ingredients linked to severe health effects, require full ingredient disclosure, provide funding to the FDA to expand its testing capacity, provide adequate oversight and testing, and put in place protections for salon workers’ health.

Microbeads Legislation

Microbeads are polyethylene or polypropylene microspheres used commonly in personal care products around the globe. In recent years however, awareness is being raised about their impact on health and the environment, particularly in the pollution of waterways. Most wastewater plants are not equipped with the filtration devices to filter out these extremely small microbeads, so they end up in local waterways and have become the number one source of plastics pollution in water bodies like the Great Lakes. To date, nine states and several other counties have already begun to restrict sales of products containing microbeads. The European Union and Canada are working towards broader bans against the products as well, but Norway is the only country thus far to pass a nationwide ban. These sorts of bans influence companies to phase out the use of microbeads in their products and should be encouraged more broadly across the U.S. to stop further pollution of our waterways.

Electron scanning microscope view of a 1.5mm wide plastic microbead

This is an image of a plastic microbead from a facewash, taken via scanning electron microscopy; it is about 0.5mm wide. Microbeads are used for their exfoliating properties; many people don’t even know they are there. The major problem is they wash down the drain, pass through sewage works and into the sea and are ingested by marine animals.

University of Exeter from United Kingdom - Andrew Watts Face to Face with Plastic


Woman wearing glove, scrubbing mold off of a wall next to a window

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate airborne concentrations of mold or mold spores indoors. While there is no federal standard for mold in homes, the EPA does recommend professional remediation of mold infested areas larger than 10 square feet in homes and specific protocol for contractors removing mold from school campuses.

  • Set a Threshold Limit Value (TLV) for airborne concentrations of molds.
  • Adopt the EPA guidance for schools and commercial buildings as a requirement for remediation by a certified mold professional if the total surface area affected exceeds ten square feet.


Frying pan with non-stick surface and hot oil under water tap flow in sink

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940s. They are common in stain resistant and non-stick consumer products, including cookware.

Federal policymakers can protect consumers from this highly toxic “forever” chemical by: 

  • Determining a federal MCL that is health-protective and lower than the current recommended level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) (consider those recommended MCLs per PFAS chemical developed by the Michigan PFAS Action Team or Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection)
  • Adding PFAS as a priority under the Toxic Substances Control Act


Tractor with high wheels is making fertilizer on young wheat

Glyphosate, a chemical commonly used in pesticides like RoundUp spray, is a probable human carcinogen. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for glyphosate in drinking water should be lowered in light of its carcinogenic effects. Currently, glyphosate is a primary drinking water contaminant under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and has a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) and Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) of 700 ppb. Public health researchers have criticized the current MCL for glyphosate, alleging that there is no safe level of glyphosate exposure and current standards are not health protective. 

Coal Tar and Coal-Tar Pitch

Industrial machinery working with asphal industrial laying fresh asphalt on construction site

According to the National Cancer Institute, coal tar is the byproduct of the production of coke, a solid fuel made by heating coal in the absence of air. Coal-tar pitch is a thick black liquid that remains after the distillation of coal tar. Both generally have a smoky or aromatic odor and have been classified as carcinogenic. Coal tar and coal tar pitch are commonly found in pavement sealants. A federal ban on the production of coal tar and coal-tar pitch in any commercial product would be the most health protective and efficient policy solution.

Speakers Series with Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, the White House's Chief Environmental Justice Officer

Our program focuses on the crucial issue of environmental justice, particularly in the face of climate change. The event will take place on Wednesday, May 1st, 2024, 6:00 – 8:30 pm, at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.

During her talk, Dr. White-Newsome will shed light on the disproportionate impact of environmental pollution and climate change on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

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