US fallout from Flint lead crisis continues

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Fallout from the lead in drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan has continued in recent weeks, with criminal proceedings, public concern over contamination across the country – especially in schools, and the Environmental Protection Agency trying to encourage greater public disclosure as it works on changes to regulations.

In Michigan, the state’s Attorney General Bill Schuette announced on April 20 the first criminal charges in relation to Flint, against two state water regulators as well as the laboratory and water quality supervisor of the City of Flint.

Communities around the country have been voicing concerns over lead, with an investigation by USA Today stating that nearly 2000 water systems serving about six million people have failed to meet the EPA’s existing lead standard since 2012. Of these, around 350 mainly serve schools and day care centres, the investigation found, and around 600 of the systems had tests at some taps with lead levels above 40 ppb, according to EPA enforcement data.

The current regulation of lead in drinking water in the US is a compromise between what is desirable and what is considered practical. According to the EPA, the best available science shows there is no safe level for exposure to lead. As a result, it set the maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for lead at zero under the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, this is a non-enforceable limit.

For most contaminants, an enforceable limit close to the MCLG is set. In the case of lead, regulation in public drinking water supply systems is governed by the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). This focuses in particular on the use of corrosion control to prevent lead leaching from service lines, but can require measures including service line removal. Utilities have to monitor the supplies of a sample of properties likely to have lead service lines. If more than 10% exceed a limit of 15 ppb, then the more stringent measures need to be implemented.


Greater disclosure

In the wake of the Flint crisis, the EPA sent letters to state Governors, state environment and public health commissioners, and tribal leaders at the end of February recommending extra steps to help enhance implementation of the LCR.

In particular, the EPA called on them to work with public water systems, especially large ones, to make public supply system assessments that had to be prepared under the LCR about the locations of lead service lines, the details of LCR compliance sampling results, and justifications for invalidation of samples.

According to an investigation by USA Today into the reaction of states to the EPA letter, there has been widespread concern over implementing the request, not least because of the challenges of making available records compiled some 20 years ago. ‘It’s unlikely water system inventory information will be widely available online anytime soon,’ one report by the paper noted. However, a number of states did indicate that they would be making information available.

The EPA has also been working on a revision of the Lead and Copper Rule, which is due to be updated sometime next year. According to the EPA, its primary goals are to improve the effectiveness of corrosion control, and to trigger extra measures to equitably reduce public exposure if corrosion control alone is not effective.


Lead a relatively low concern for utilities

Even with the prospect of changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, water utilities in general appear to be relatively relaxed about the issue of lead compared to other issues. The American Water Works Association has just released its 2016 State of the Water Industry Report, which brings together the results of its survey of the sector.

In one of the survey questions, respondents were asked to express their level of concern regarding achieving compliance in eight different regulatory areas. Of these eight, the joint area of lead and copper ranked lowest in terms of the number of respondents grading it as an issue about which they were extremely concerned about meeting current regulatory requirements. Chemical spills was the area with the highest number of responses grading it as an issue of extreme concern.

Lead and copper were also very low in the rankings as far as concerns about future regulations were concerned. Out of 27 compounds or groups of compounds, lead and copper were ranked 21st, with 7% of respondents ranking it as an area about which they were extremely concerned as far as future regulations are concerned.


  • USA, lead, Flint