Drinking Water:

EPA Should Strengthen Ongoing Efforts to Ensure That Consumers Are Protected from Lead Contamination

GAO-06-148: Published: Jan 4, 2006. Publicly Released: Jan 26, 2006.

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Elevated lead levels in the District of Columbia's tap water in 2003 prompted questions about how well consumers are protected nationwide. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states, and local water systems share responsibility for providing safe drinking water. Lead typically enters tap water as a result of the corrosion of lead in the water lines or household plumbing. EPA's lead rule establishes testing and treatment requirements. This report discusses (1) EPA's data on the rule's implementation; (2) what implementation of the rule suggests about the need for changes to the regulatory framework; and (3) the extent to which drinking water at schools and child care facilities is tested for lead.

EPA's data suggest that the number of drinking water systems with elevated lead levels has dropped significantly since testing began in the early 1990s. However, EPA's database does not contain recent test results for over 30 percent of large and medium-sized community water systems and lacks data on the status of water systems' efforts to implement the lead rule for over 70 percent of all community systems, apparently because states have not met reporting requirements. In addition, EPA's data on water systems' violations of testing and treatment requirements are questionable because some states have reported few or no violations. As a result, EPA does not have sufficient data to gauge the rule's effectiveness. Implementation experiences to date have revealed weaknesses in the regulatory framework for the lead rule. For example, most states do not require their water systems to notify homeowners that volunteer for periodic lead monitoring of the test results. In addition, corrosion control can be impaired by changes to other treatment processes, and controls that would help avoid such impacts may not be adequate. Finally, because testing indicates that some "lead-free" products leach high levels of lead into drinking water, existing standards for plumbing materials may not be sufficiently protective. According to EPA officials, the agency is considering some changes to the lead rule. On the basis of the limited data available, it appears that few schools and child care facilities have tested their water for lead, either in response to the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988 or as part of their current operating practices. In addition, no focal point exists at either the national or state level to collect and analyze test results. Thus, the pervasiveness of lead contamination in the drinking water at schools and child care facilities--and the need for more concerted action--is unclear.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should take a number of steps to further protect the American public from elevated lead levels in drinking water. Specifically, to improve EPA's ability to oversee implementation of the lead rule and assess compliance and enforcement activities, EPA should ensure that data on water systems' test results, corrective action milestones, and violations are current, accurate, and complete.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that, to improve EPA's ability to oversee implementation of the Lead and Copper Rule and assess compliance and enforcement activities, EPA should ensure that data on water systems' test results, corrective action milestones, and violations are current, accurate, and complete. For example, we found that key data on the status of water systems' efforts to implement the lead rule, including required corrective actions, were incomplete. We also reported that EPA's data on lead rule violations were questionable because of potential underreporting by the states. EPA has taken some steps to begin to improve the quality of its data. In August 2009, EPA formed a Data Quality Workgroup with EPA Regions and state staff to look at the incorrect compliance determinations made by states and develop recommendations to prevent these problems in the future. EPA indicated that it is still in the process of developing recommendations from this effort, as well as implementing other data quality improvement actions, such as developing standard operating procedures, quality assurance checks on the data, and on-line rule training. When we confirm that the actions cited by the agency have been implemented, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should take a number of steps to further protect the American public from elevated lead levels in drinking water. Specifically, to improve EPA's ability to oversee implementation of the lead rule and assess compliance and enforcement activities, EPA should analyze data on corrective actions and violations to assess the adequacy of EPA and state enforcement efforts.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that, to improve EPA's ability to oversee implementation of the Lead and Copper Rule and assess compliance and enforcement activities, EPA should analyze data on corrective actions and violations to assess the adequacy of EPA and state enforcement efforts. For example, we reported that EPA had not systematically evaluated state enforcement efforts with regard to the lead rule. EPA indicated that, in 2006-2007, it revised its state program reviews to include a more extensive review of rules, including the Lead and Copper Rule. As a result of the revisions, states were asked questions related to system sampling, tiering, calculation of lead testing results, and responses to action level excellences. EPA also collected information on monitoring at new systems, corrosion control treatment recommendations, testing at schools and/or child care facilities, and the process for approving long term treatment changes. In addition, EPA reported that the Office of Water, in conjunction with the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance has developed a targeting tool to identify systems for priority enforcement action, and to help the states prioritize its enforcement actions.

    Recommendation: To expand ongoing efforts to improve implementation and oversight of the lead rule, EPA should reassess existing regulations and guidance to ensure the sites water systems use for tap monitoring reflect areas of highest risk for lead corrosion.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that, to expand ongoing efforts to improve implementation and oversight of the Lead and Copper Rule, EPA should reassess existing regulations and guidance to ensure the sites water systems use for tap monitoring reflect areas of highest risk for lead corrosion. Specifically, we found that while the Lead and Copper rule included a tiered system for selecting sampling sites, EPA had not updated the site selection criteria, and at least one of the criteria was outdated. EPA has re-evaluated the sample site selection criteria as part of its long-term revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule. EPA prepared several white papers, and presented information on this issue and solicited comments from stakeholders to the Lead and Copper Rule during a public meeting in October 2008. For example, EPA solicited stakeholder opinion on potential revisions to the site selection criteria, such as adding a tier to represent "high risk" populations. Although revised site selection criteria have not yet been codified through a rulemaking process, EPA indicated that agreement has been reached among stakeholders that the site selection criteria need to be modified and that changes will be included in future proposed revisions to the Rule.

    Recommendation: To expand ongoing efforts to improve implementation and oversight of the lead rule, EPA should reassess existing regulations and guidance to ensure the circumstances in which states approve water systems for reduced monitoring are appropriate and that systems resume standard monitoring following a major treatment change.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that EPA should reassess existing regulations and guidance to ensure the circumstances in which states approve water systems for reduced monitoring are appropriate and that systems resume standard monitoring following a major treatment change. We reported that lead rule implementation experiences to date have revealed weaknesses in the regulatory framework. In some cases, corrosion control can be impaired by changes to other water treatment processes, and controls that would help avoid such impacts may not be adequate. In July 2006, EPA proposed to change the federal regulations and disallow water systems that exceed the lead action level from initiating or remaining on a reduced lead and copper monitoring schedule based solely on the results of their water quality parameter monitoring (see Federal Register, Vol. 71, No. 137). EPA noted that this change would ensure that reduced monitoring would only be permitted in instances in which it has been demonstrated that corrosion control treatment is both effective and reliable. Compliance with water quality parameters alone may not always indicate that corrosion control is effective.

    Recommendation: To expand ongoing efforts to improve implementation and oversight of the lead rule, EPA should reassess existing regulations and guidance to ensure homeowners who participate in tap monitoring are informed of the test results.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that EPA should reassess existing regulations and guidance to ensure homeowners who participate in tap monitoring are informed of the test results. We reported that lead rule implementation experiences to date have revealed weaknesses in the regulatory framework. Most states do not require their water systems to notify homeowners who volunteer for periodic lead monitoring of the test results. In July 2006, EPA proposed to change the federal regulations to amend the public education requirements described in the regulations and add a new notification requirement that will require a water system to provide consumers who occupy homes or buildings that are part of the monitoring program with testing results when their drinking water is tested for lead (see Federal Register, Vol. 71, No. 137). EPA noted that the results of lead monitoring can provide useful information to the occupants of the household from which the samples were taken. Occupants can evaluate the results of lead tests for their drinking water and use that information to inform any decisions they might make to take action to reduce their exposure to lead in drinking water.

    Recommendation: To expand ongoing efforts to improve implementation and oversight of the lead rule, EPA should reassess existing regulations and guidance to ensure states review and approve major treatment changes, as defined by EPA, to assess their impact on corrosion control before the changes are implemented.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that EPA should reassess existing regulations and guidance to ensure that states review and approve major treatment changes, as defined by EPA, to assess their impact on corrosion control before the changes are implemented. We reported that lead rule implementation experiences to date have revealed weaknesses in the regulatory framework. In some instances, changes to other treatment processes can make corrosion control less effective. In July 2006, EPA proposed to amend the federal regulations to require water systems to obtain prior approval by the state primacy agency to add a new source of water or change a treatment process prior to implementation (see Federal Register, Vol. 71, No. 137). EPA noted that when water systems make changes in their source water or treatment processes there could be unintentional effects on the water systems' optimal corrosion control. This proposed change will ensure that a water system maintains optimal corrosion control following changes in water quality resulting from a change in source or treatment process by providing the primacy agency an opportunity to review the change and its possible impacts on corrosion control.

    Recommendation: EPA should collect and analyze data on the impact of lead service line replacement on lead levels and conduct other research, as appropriate, to assess the effectiveness of lead line replacement programs and whether additional regulations or guidance are warranted.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that EPA should collect and analyze data on the impact of lead service line replacement on lead levels and conduct other research, as appropriate, to assess the effectiveness of lead line replacement programs and whether additional regulations or guidance are warranted. We reported that lead rule implementation experiences to date have revealed weaknesses in the regulatory framework. Under the lead rule, water systems may be required to replace lead service lines if test results exceed the action level after installing corrosion control and/or source water treatment. However, the limited data on the extent and results of lead service line replacement programs make it difficult to draw conclusions about the programs' effectiveness or the need for additional regulations or guidance. In July 2006, EPA proposed to change the federal regulations to require water systems to reevaluate lead service lines classified as "replaced" through testing if they resume lead service line replacement programs (see Federal Register, Vol. 71, No. 137). EPA noted that the current provision in the regulations, which allows systems to leave in place an individual lead service line if the lead concentration in all service line samples from that line is less than or equal to 0.015 mg/L, is intended to maximize the exposure reduction achieved per service line replaced by avoiding the disruption and cost of replacing lines that are not leaching high levels of lead. However, samples taken from a lead service line pursuant to the regulations cannot predict future conditions of the system or of the service line. Water systems can discontinue a lead service line replacement program by meeting the lead action level for two consecutive 6-month monitoring periods. Therefore, EPA proposed that these systems reconsider any lines previously determined to not require replacement if they exceed the action level again in the future and resume the lead service line replacement program.

    Recommendation: EPA should collect information on (1) the nature and extent of modified sampling arrangements within combined distribution systems and (2) differences in the reporting practices and corrective actions authorized by the states, using this information to reassess applicable regulations and guidance.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that, to expand ongoing efforts to improve implementation and oversight of the Lead and Copper Rule, EPA should collect information on (1) the nature and extent of modified sampling arrangements within combined distribution systems and (2) differences in the reporting practices and corrective actions authorized by the states, using this information to reassess applicable regulations and guidance. Specifically, we found differences across states in how such systems were required to monitor for lead and report the results. Further, we found that these variations could result in potential differences in information availability and public health protection if, for example, states take alternative views on the appropriateness of treating combined distribution systems as one system for the purposes of lead testing and allow such systems to reduce the number of samples required. EPA collected information on issues related to combined distribution system regulations and guidance during an October 2008 Lead and Copper Rule public stakeholder meeting. EPA indicated that it is evaluating whether revisions are needed to the Lead and Copper Rule to ensure greater consistency of implementation among combined distribution systems, and that the agency will consider collecting detailed information on these systems as part of its long-term revisions to the Rule.

    Recommendation: EPA should evaluate existing standards for in-line and endpoint plumbing devices used in or near residential plumbing systems to determine if the standards are sufficiently protective to minimize potential lead contamination.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that EPA should evaluate existing standards for in-line and endpoint plumbing devices used in or near residential plumbing systems to determine if the standards are sufficiently protective to minimize potential lead contamination. We reported that the standards applicable to plumbing products are important to utility managers who are responsible for ensuring the quality of water at the tap but have little control over household plumbing. However, we also found that the existing standards may not have been protective enough, according to some experts. Through its involvement in the Drinking Water Additives Lead Task Group, EPA indicated that it helped develop revisions to Sections 8 and 9 of the NSF/ANSI Standard 61 (which applies to drinking water system components). One revision (Annex F) was added to the standard in 2007 and reduced the acceptable level of lead that could leach into water from drinking water system components. The second revision (Annex G) was added to the standard in 2008 and provided an optional evaluation method for calculating the lead content of plumbing devices. According to Annex G, products certified using the optional evaluation method must comply with all requirements of Standard 61. According to EPA and an NSF International representative, these revisions will help to minimize the potential for lead contamination.

    Recommendation: In order to update its guidance and testing protocols, EPA should collect and analyze the results of any testing that has been done to determine whether more needs to be done to protect users from elevated lead levels in drinking water at schools and child care facilities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that, to update its guidance and testing protocols, EPA should collect and analyze the results of any testing that has been done to determine whether more needs to be done to protect users from elevated lead levels in drinking water at schools and child care facilities. We found that little information exists on the extent to which drinking water at schools and child care facilities nationwide may contain unacceptable levels of lead. As a result, it was difficult to determine whether more significant action on this issue, such as mandatory testing, was warranted. According to EPA, the agency collected some information on testing at schools and/or child care facilities through the 2006-2007 revisions to its state Program Reviews. In addition, EPA stated that it began collecting case studies of school lead testing in early 2010. EPA expects the first round of case studies to be completed by the end of 2010 and EPA plans to use the case studies to improve its guidance materials and assist communities in conducting the testing. Finally, EPA has developed draft training tutorials, which will be made available on-line to help implement the testing program.

    Recommendation: To assist local agencies in making the most efficient use of their resources, EPA should assess the pros and cons of various remediation activities and make the information publicly available.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a January 2006 report (GAO-06-148), we recommended that, to assist local agencies in making the most efficient use of their resources, EPA should assess the pros and cons of various remediation activities and make the information publicly available. Specifically, we found that no focal point exists to provide information on cost-effective lead remediation strategies. We also reported that, according to state and local officials, children may be exposed to a variety of environmental hazards at schools and child care facilities, and that hazards such as asbestos or mold are often prioritized over lead in drinking water because more information on the nature and extent of these other hazards is available. EPA indicated that it has distributed guidance that it developed on reducing lead in drinking water at schools and child care facilities at conferences and through various networks. In addition, EPA has conducted a series of outreach efforts, including a Lead Poison Prevention Webcast, and a national outreach campaign with the National Head Start Association to reduce lead in drinking water in child care facilities. EPA also developed a lead in drinking water decision tree to help schools and child care facilities evaluate their options, and made this tool available on the agency's Web site.

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