Lead limits in drinking water to be tightened following multiple crises

November 8, 2023—The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to propose a new requirement that lead pipes connecting water mains to homes and businesses be replaced across the U.S.—a move that is decades too late, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Ronnie Levin.

Levin, an instructor in the Department of Environmental Health, was featured in an October 28 Associated Press article about the EPA’s plan and the history behind its action on lead-contaminated drinking water—or lack thereof. The current plan comes in the wake of drinking water crises in multiple cities, including Washington, D.C., Flint, Mich., and Newark, N.J.

As a researcher for the EPA in the 1980s, Levin calculated that 40 million Americans were drinking water with harmful levels of lead. But facing the costs and complications of regulation, “instead of trying to deal with it substantively, [the EPA] just tabled it,” Levin said.

Once Levin’s calculations were leaked to the press, and she and other officials known as the “lead mafia” led what she called “a tough fight within the EPA,” the agency did issue a lead rule—largely unchanged since—that didn’t force utilities to eliminate lead in drinking water, instead requiring them to test for lead in homes and add anti-corrosive chemicals to water. But lead in drinking water persists as a problem, including for an estimated 500,000 children whose cognitive development can be impaired by lead exposure.

“Across the population, this has huge effects,” Levin said.

Aaron Bernstein, former director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard Chan School (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) and current head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s environmental health programs, was also quoted in the article, sharing his optimism about the EPA’s forthcoming regulations.

“As we remove lead pipes, we’re going to see [childhood blood lead levels] continue to fall. And that will be really wonderful,” he told AP.

Levin acknowledged that removing lead pipes and lead-leaching plumbing in homes will be costly. “But, you know, we’ve been diddling around for 30 years,” she said.

Read the AP article: EPA to strengthen lead protections in drinking water after multiple crises, including Flint

Learn more

Regulations reducing lead and copper contamination in drinking water generate $9 billion of health benefits per year, according to new analysis (Harvard Chan School release)

Report: Lead levels too high in many U.S. schools (Harvard Chan School news)