District of Columbia's Drinking Water: Agencies Have Improved Coordination, but Key Challenges Remain in Protecting the Public from Elevated Lead Levels

GAO-05-344 Published: Mar 31, 2005. Publicly Released: May 05, 2005.
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Media reports on elevated lead in the District of Columbia's drinking water raised concern about how local and federal agencies are carrying out their responsibilities. The Lead and Copper Rule requires water systems to protect drinking water from lead. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Washington Aqueduct treats and sells water to the District Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), which delivers it to District residents. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Region III Office oversees these agencies. GAO examined (1) what agencies implementing the rule in the District are doing to improve their coordination and reduce lead levels, (2) the extent to which WASA and other agencies are identifying populations at greatest risk of exposure to lead in drinking water and reducing their exposure, (3) how other drinking water systems that exceed EPA's action level for lead conduct public education, and (4) the state of research on lead exposure and how it applies to drinking water.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency To provide timely information to communities on how to improve communication of lead health risks and as part of its comprehensive re-examination of the Lead and Copper Rule's public education requirements, the Administrator of EPA should direct the Office of Water to identify and publish best practices that water systems are using to educate the public about lead in drinking water.
Closed – Implemented
EPA agreed that sharing best practices with water systems would be helpful in communicating the risks associated with lead in drinking water. In response to this recommendation, though primarily to concerns expressed at stakeholder conferences, the agency asked its National Drinking Water Advisory Council to convene a working group to discuss how public education could be improved. The Council, in turn, convened a working group that eventually provided recommendations to EPA in June 2006. The recommended changes were incorporated into EPA's 2006 revisions to its Lead and Copper Rule.
Environmental Protection Agency To improve the health risk information on lead available to water systems and regulatory staff, the Administrator of EPA should develop a strategy for closing information gaps in the health effects of lead in drinking water that includes timelines, funding requirements, and any needed coordination with CDC and other research organizations.
Closed – Implemented
To improve the health risk information on lead available to water systems and regulatory staff, EPA has developed a health advisory intended for water utilities and state and local governments. It also developed a paper that summarizes toxicokinetic research published since the Lead and Copper Rule was first issued in 1991.

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