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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can't properly protect children from lead in drinking water in schools because of inadequate oversight of its 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, the Government Accountability Office reported in late January.
Elevated lead levels in the District of Columbia's tap water in 2003 prompted questions about how well consumers are protected nationwide. The EPA, the states and local water systems share responsibility for providing safe drinking water. EPA's lead rule established testing and treatment requirements.
The report discusses: EPA's data on the rule's implementation; if the implementation shows that parts of the rule need to be changed; and the extent to which drinking water at schools and child-care facilities is tested.
GAO discovered that EPA did not know a great many things because of missing or inadequate data. Because EPA didn't pressure them, for example, some states didn't gather the required data.
The good news is that the amount of lead in drinking water has decreased considerably from when the rule was promulgated in 1991, GAO said. EPA's database, however, does not contain recent test results for more than 30% of large and medium-sized community water systems and lacks data on the status of water systems' efforts to implement the lead rule for more than 70% of all community systems, apparently because states have not met reporting requirements.
GAO noted that it couldn't really tell if the data had not been reported or if the water tests never took place. EPA acknowledged that it couldn't vouch for the timeliness of the states' data because it hadn't been keeping tabs on it.
In addition, EPA's data on water systems' violations of testing and treatment requirements are questionable because some states have reported few or no violations. As a result, EPA doesn't really know how effective the rule has been.
Implementation of the rule has shown several weaknesses, GAO said. For example, when a homeowner volunteers to have his water tested, most states don't require that the homeowner be told what the test results are.
When water systems change their water treatment regime, it can result in either more or less lead leaching from service lines, but the water isn't tested to find out.
Finally, because testing indicates that some "lead-free" products leach high levels of lead into drinking water, existing standards for plumbing materials may not be sufficiently protective, GAO reported. According to EPA officials, the agency is considering some changes to the lead rule.
On the basis of the limited data available, it appears that few schools and child-care facilities have tested their water for lead, either in response to the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988 or just because it's the prudent thing to do. In addition, no single authority exists at either the national or state level to collect and analyze test results. The pervasiveness of lead contamination in the drinking water at schools and child-care facilities, and the need to take more action, is unclear, GAO said.
EPA established 15 parts per billion for the test result at the 90th percentile as the action level for lead contamination. In other words, if a water system tests 100 faucets, it ranks the test results from the lowest level of lead as No. 1 and the highest amount as No. 100. If test No. 90 comes back at less than 15 ppb, the water system is in the clear.
If the results are higher, the water system has to tell the public that lead is in the water and provide information on how to reduce lead exposure. It also has to change its water-treatment method in order to reduce the amount of lead leaching. If the change in water treatment doesn't do the job, the water system has to take more drastic measures, such as replacing lead service lines.
GAO's complete report can be read at www.gao.gov/new.items/d06148.pdf