The Issue:

In many communities across the United States, aging water infrastructure can be a significant source of lead exposure. The only permanent solution to this problem is the removal of the nation’s six million remaining lead service lines, as well as all other lead pipes, fixtures, and solder.

The Clinic’s Work:

The Clinic has released white papers on the authority of water utilities to use ratepayer funds to pay for lead service line removal and on how water utilities should sample household tap water to monitor the level of lead in their customers’ drinking water. In February 2020, the Clinic, together with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Dr. Karen Baehler of American University, submitted comments to the EPA focused on the health equity, environmental justice, and civil rights aspects of the EPA’s proposed revisions to its Lead and Copper Rule (LCR).

In Detail:

Crises in recent years in Newark, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, have brought greater attention to a widespread problem in the United States: lead contamination in drinking water. In fact, cities across the country have grappled with this problem for decades. Residents in cities such as Washington, D.C., Sebring, Ohio, and Durham, North Carolina have experienced elevated lead in their tap water, leading to potentially damaging spikes in blood lead levels.

Even low levels of lead exposure can lead to health effects in children including developmental problems, reduced IQ, behavioral problems, and anemia. In adults, health effects of lead exposure include cardiovascular problems, impaired kidney function, and reproductive problems. The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead-based paint in 1978 and Congress prohibited the use of lead in gasoline in the 1990s. These problems hit certain groups particularly hard: African American children are twice as likely to suffer from elevated blood lead levels as white children, and children in low-income households are three times as likely to suffer from elevated blood lead levels as children in wealthier households.

One major source of lead exposure is drinking water. Unlike most other drinking water contaminants, lead is typically not present in source waters and therefore cannot be removed at the water treatment plant. Instead, lead enters drinking water by leaching out of pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder as the water moves through the system to reach residents’ taps. The most common source of lead in drinking water is the “service lines” that connect each home to the water mains (see below).

Source: Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative


The 1986 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) banned the use of lead pipes in plumbing systems, but many older pipes still remain in use. The American Water Works Association, a water utility trade group, estimates that 6 million homes in the United States still have lead service lines.

Lead from these sources can enter the drinking water when the pipes or fixtures corrode. Multiple factors affect the rate at which such corrosion occurs, including the temperature and chemistry of the water, the length of time that water spends in the pipes, and whether the pipes have developed protective coatings or scales.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) is the primary federal law intended to ensure that the public has access to safe drinking water. Under the SDWA, EPA sets nationwide standards for water quality. It also has oversight authority over the states, local governments, and water suppliers that implement these standards.

The standards that EPA develops are known as National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. EPA has established such standards for more than 90 contaminants. All public water systems must meet the standards embodied in these regulations.

The National Primary Drinking Water Regulation that addresses lead is called the Lead and Copper Rule (“LCR”). EPA promulgated the LCR in 1991 and it has since then been subject to only minor revisions. Under the LCR, a utility must control the corrosiveness of its water, a process referred to as corrosion control treatment (“CCT”). CCT is most frequently accomplished by adding a corrosion inhibitor, such as orthophosphate (PO43-) to the water. The rule also requires public education and source water testing. In addition, utilities must periodically sample lead levels at customer taps. If, despite using CCT, lead concentrations still exceed an action level of 15 ppb in more than 10% of customer taps sampled, the system must start replacing lead service lines at an annual rate of “at least 7 percent of the initial number of lead service lines in its distribution system.”

While the replacement of all lead service lines is the only permanent solution, funding those replacements remains a major challenge. EPA has estimated that the cost of removing all lead service lines in the United States could be between 16 and 80 billion dollars. In many communities, there are also questions about who is responsible for this cost, particularly because a typical lead service line is partially located on public property and partially on private property (see diagram above).

The Clinic’s work thus far has focused on ensuring that the collection of water samples does not mistakenly underestimate lead exposure and on examining the authority of water utilities to pay for lead service line replacement on private property. The Clinic will also work on comments on EPA’s revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule to ensure that

Clinic Publications: