Final Lead in Drinking Water Rule Will Worsen Disparities in Lead Exposure

Lack of improvement indicates EPA rejected expert advice and failed to fix proposed rule’s deep flaws

December 22, 2020
Sam Lovell, (202) 572-3544,

Today, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) released its long overdue revision of the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), ignoring extensive evidence it received in public comments highlighting major flaws. Among other issues, the agency failed to address environmental justice concerns raised by a recent American University-EDF analysis revealing that a lead pipe replacement program in Washington, D.C., similar to what will be set up under the rule, disproportionately benefited the wealthy, while leaving low-income and Black residents behind. By placing the financial burden of replacement on households, the rule will worsen disparities in lead exposure resulting from income and racial inequality.

The final rule also fails to proactively require replacement of lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes connecting the water main to homes, that are the main source of lead in drinking water. EPA estimates that as many as 9.3 million LSLs continue to provide water to households across the country, not significantly fewer than when the original 1991 rule was promulgated.

“Everyone, regardless of their income or race, deserves to drink water that isn’t coming from a lead pipe,” said Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “Unfortunately, this rule is a major missed opportunity to advance efforts to equitably replace the country’s remaining lead service lines.”

In EDF’s comments on the draft proposal, we highlighted findings from an American University-led analysis of LSL replacements conducted in DC from 2009-2018. During this period, the water utility started a program that gave more opportunities for homeowners to replace the line, however the homeowners still needed to pay for the work. This had the unintended consequence of putting low-income and Black households at greater risk of lead exposure, while facilitating replacement in the wealthier parts of the city with lower percentages of Black residents.

Under the new LCR, communities will set up programs similar to the DC program, and we anticipate this will result in similar health disparities. This is particularly important as a GAO report released last week found that LSLs are more likely to be in areas of poverty. 

EPA also appears to have ignored the findings from our analysis of the impact replacing LSLs has on heart disease deaths. Using publicly available data from EPA, we found each line replaced yields a $22,000 payback in reduced deaths from heart disease – which would result in more than $205 billion over 35 years if all LSLs were fully replaced in 10 years. We provided the analysis to EPA in our comments on the draft proposal. Given the magnitude of the benefits, the agency should have incorporated this into its economic analysis and considered strengthening the LSL replacement requirements. 

“With the major issues that remain in this rule, it is all the more important that states and communities continue to step up to get the lead out of their water systems,” said Lindsay McCormick, Health Program Manager at EDF.

While the final rule makes several improvements to parts of the original, including requirements for LSL inventories and customer notification, the flaws will severely inhibit meaningful progress. Beyond the above issues, the final rule:

  • Continues to treat full LSL replacement as a last resort. LSL replacement should be an integral part of a long-term solution, including periodic benchmarks for all water systems to achieve regardless of water testing results.
  • Continues to allow water systems to conduct partial replacements where the property owner is unwilling or unable to pay the cost for the portion not owned by the water system. Partial replacement significantly increases short-term lead in water levels and fails to provide the long-term lead exposure reductions provided by full replacement.
  • Backslides on the rate of mandatory LSL replacement. When a water system’s lead levels are so high that full LSL replacement is mandated, EPA proposes an annual replacement rate of 3% instead of the current 7%, effectively giving a system with high levels of lead in water 33 years rather than the current 15 years to replace all of its LSLs. While more systems are likely to have to conduct mandatory full LSL replacement because of the stricter sampling requirements, most will not.

It will be three years before the new rule becomes fully effective across the country. In the meantime, cities and states should step up to fully replace their LSLs while ensuring funding and other support for low-income communities and communities of color.

See all of EDF’s blogs on the Lead and Copper Rule.

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