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EPA Launches Program To Reduce Lead in Drinking Water

May 7, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new program today for reducing lead in drinking water, setting standards that could eventually force some cities to replace old lead pipes.

″This rule will give us the most stringent drinking water standards for lead in the entire world,″ EPA Deputy Administrator Henry Habicht said at a news conference.

Lead is a poison that can produce high blood pressure in adults. Its chief danger is to children, because small amounts can interfere with development of the brain.

The agency estimates that its regulations, years in preparation, would reduce blood lead concentrations in 600,000 children below the ″level of concern″ set by the Centers for Disease Control.

But environmentalists were dismayed, saying EPA failed to set an enforceable limit. Instead, there is an ″action level″ for lead of 15 parts per billion. Water systems that exceed the level in 10 percent of high-risk homes monitored for lead will be required to take steps to reduce lead content.

″This is a major disappointment,″ said Karen Florini, a senior staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. ″EPA didn’t set an actual standard that limits lead in drinking water. The other problem is the glacial pace of the compliance schedule.″

Officials described the regulations as their most important against lead since they began proceedings to reduce lead in gasoline in 1976.

The Bush administration has proposed to Congress a $1 billion program to reduce lead exposure, mainly by removal of lead-based paint from areas in old buildings where small children can ingest paint chips.

EPA’s new program will require water systems to monitor tap water in ″high-risk″ households - those with lead service pipes leading in from the main, or recent lead solder on copper pipes.

If 10 percent of these households show concentrations of 15 parts per billion in tap water, the supplier will have to undertake ″optimal corrosion control.″

This could mean the addition of an alkaline additive like lime or soda ash to reduce the acidity of the water. The greater the acidity, the more lead leaches from the pipes.

Sean McElheny, an EPA spokesman, said many large cities, Boston and Seattle for example, have begun corrosion control steps in anticipation of the EPA rules at a cost of about $1 per household.

The 800 largest water suppliers will be required to begin corrosion control programs next year regardless of how many households show 15 parts per billion lead in tap water.

About 40,000 water systems will have to undertake monitoring, officials said.

If they meet the 10 percent cutoff, they will be required to tell customers how to reduce exposure, such as letting taps run for a few minutes before drawing from them.

If corrosion control doesn’t bring 15 ppb concentrations below the 10 percent cutoff, the water system will have to begin replacing lead service pipes and will have 15 years to do it.

Several thousand suppliers are expected to have to remove lead pipes, mostly in the Northeast and the Midwest.

The agency estimated that its program would cost $500 million to $800 million a year, but corrosion control alone should extend the life of pipes by enough for water systems to save $500 million a year.

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