Fast Facts

Lead in drinking water comes primarily from corrosion of service lines that connect the water main to a building. The total number of lead service lines in the United States is unknown.

Through our statistical analysis of 4 water systems' geospatial lead data and U.S. Census data, we found that areas with older housing and vulnerable populations were more likely to have lead service lines. Many water systems face challenges identifying high-risk areas for required testing. The EPA has not updated guidance for identifying these areas since 1991.

We made 4 recommendations, including that the EPA develop new guidance for water systems.

Typical location of a water main, service line, and other pipes that deliver drinking water to homes

Diagram showing how water lines connect to a home.

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

GAO's statistical analysis indicates that areas with older housing and vulnerable populations (e.g., families in poverty) have higher concentrations of lead service lines in the selected cities GAO examined. By using geospatial lead service line data from the selected water systems and geospatial data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS), GAO identified characteristics of neighborhoods with higher concentrations of lead service lines. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) guidance for water systems on how to identify the location of sites at high-risk of having lead service lines has not been updated since 1991 and many water systems face challenges identifying areas at risk of having lead service lines. By developing guidance for water systems that outlines methods for identifying high-risk locations using publicly available data, EPA could better ensure that public water systems test water samples from locations at greater risk of having lead service lines and identify areas with vulnerable populations to focus lead service line replacement efforts. (See figure for common sources of lead in home drinking water.)

Common Sources of Lead in Drinking Water within Homes and Residences

Common Sources of Lead in Drinking Water within Homes and Residences

EPA has taken some actions to address the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act requirement, which include developing a strategic plan regarding lead in public water systems. However, EPA's published plan did not satisfy the statutory requirement that the agency's strategic plan address targeted outreach, education, technical assistance, and risk communication undertaken by EPA, states, and public water systems. For example, the plan does not discuss public education, technical assistance or risk communication. Instead, EPA's plan focused solely on how to notify households when EPA learns of certain exceedances of lead in their drinking water. Moreover, EPA's plan is not consistent with leading practices for strategic planning. For example, EPA's plan does not set a mission statement or define long-term goals. Developing a strategic plan that meets the statutory requirement and fully reflects leading practices for strategic planning would give EPA greater assurance that it has effectively planned for how it will communicate the risks of lead in drinking water to the public.

Why GAO Did This Study

Lead in drinking water comes primarily from corrosion of service lines connecting the water main to a house or building, pipes inside a building, or plumbing fixtures. As GAO reported in September 2018, the total number of lead service lines in drinking water systems is unknown, and less than 20 of the 100 largest water systems have such data publicly available.

GAO was asked to examine the actions EPA and water systems are taking to educate the public on the risks of lead in drinking water. This report examines, among other things: (1) the extent to which neighborhood data on cities served by lead service lines can be used to focus lead reduction efforts; and (2) actions EPA has taken to address WIIN Act requirements, and EPA's risk communication documents.

GAO conducted a statistical analysis combining geospatial lead service line and ACS data to identify characteristics of selected communities; reviewed legal requirements and EPA documents; and interviewed EPA officials.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that EPA develop (1) guidance for water systems on lead reduction efforts, and (2) a strategic plan that meets the WIIN Act requirement. EPA agreed with one recommendation and disagreed with the others. GAO continues to believe the recommendations are warranted, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency EPA's Assistant Administrator for Water should develop guidance for water systems that outlines methods to use ACS data and, where available, geospatial lead or other data to identify high-risk locations in which to focus lead reduction efforts, including tap sampling and lead service line replacement efforts. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In January 2021, in a supplemental letter to GAO, EPA indicated that the agency intends to develop implementation guidance for preparation of the Lead Service Line Replacement plan, which is included in the Lead and Copper Rule Revision, and will consider, as appropriate, the data sources recommended by GAO. We will keep the recommendation open until such guidance is developed.
Environmental Protection Agency EPA's Assistant Administrator for Water should incorporate use of (1) ACS data on neighborhood characteristics potentially associated with the presence of lead service lines and (2) geospatial lead data, when available, into EPA's efforts to address the Federal Action Plan to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposures and Associated Health Impacts. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In January 2021, in a supplemental letter to GAO, EPA indicated that the agency agrees with GAO that demographic data and geospatial or other data on the location of lead service lines can be helpful resources. We are keeping this recommendation open while we track the agency's efforts to incorporate use of ACS data and geospatial lead data, when available, into EPA's efforts to address the "Federal Action Plan to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposures and Associated Health Impacts."
Environmental Protection Agency
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
EPA's Assistant Administrator for Water should develop a strategic plan that meets the WIIN Act requirement for providing targeted outreach, education, technical assistance, and risk communication to populations affected by the concentration of lead in public water systems, and that is fully consistent with leading practices for strategic plans. (Recommendation 3)
Open
As of January 2021, in a supplemental letter to GAO, EPA explained its disagreement with the recommendation. EPA stated that it believes the agency has already developed a strategic plan that meets the WIIN Act requirement, through its June 2017 "Strategic Plan for Targeted Outreach to Populations Affected By Lead" and complementary actions required by the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) Revisions for targeted outreach and education to water system consumers. However, we maintain that this recommendation is warranted and that EPA should implement it because the plan does not discuss all items required by the law and does not meet leading practices for strategic plans. EPA explained it focused its strategic plan on the new coordination, assistance, and communications required for household notification under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Section 1414(c)(5)(B) because of the context of multiple related statutory provisions and the existing resources for notifications and outreach required by the LCR. However, as we state in our December 2020 report, the WIIN Act requires EPA to develop a strategic plan to provide targeted outreach, education, technical assistance, and risk communication undertaken by EPA, states, and public water systems to populations affected by the concentration of lead in public water systems--including dissemination of information to households when certain exceedances of the lead action level occur. The plan EPA developed does not satisfy the WIIN Act requirement because it only discusses the dissemination of information when there are certain lead action level exceedances. The plan does not discuss education, technical assistance, and risk communication as required. The plan also does not meet GPRAMA leading practices for strategic plans. Developing a strategic plan that meets the statutory requirement and fully reflects leading practices for strategic plans would give EPA greater assurance that it has effectively planned for how it will communicate to the public the risk of lead in drinking water.
Environmental Protection Agency
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Administrator of EPA should establish a time frame for publishing new risk communication guidance or updating existing risk communication manuals. (Recommendation 4)
Open
As noted in its comments in our December 2020 report, EPA agreed with the recommendation to establish a time frame for publishing new risk communication guidance or updating existing risk communication manuals. EPA updated its risk communication website as of April 2021 with several agency-wide documents that we are currently reviewing, such as a research-based definition of risk communication; a new risk communication framework, which the agency indicated is grounded in the latest research from the decision, risk, and management sciences; and specific risk communication tools on several emerging and cross-cutting contaminants, including lead.

Full Report

GAO Contacts