A New Standard
Directorate of Assessments and Prevention
Workplace Safety Division
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
Author’s note: The Environmental Protection Agency has indicated a new standard for lead and copper in drinking water will be released this summer. This could potentially result in safety offices being inundated with questions concerning the safety of the drinking water on installations. While the safety office is not responsible for the water system, it needs to be knowledgeable enough to answer basic questions and direct concerns to the proper office. The following is a brief synopsis of the Safe Drinking Water Act, its applicability to military installations, the health effects of exposure to lead and copper, and a summary of the current Lead and Copper Rule (LCR).
The exact changes the EPA is proposing to the current LCR has not as of yet been announced. There are, however, indications from the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions White Paper, published by the EPA in October 2016, on the probable direction of the changes. The current standard is technology-based with an established action level for lead of 15 ppb (for the 90th percentile sample) based on an assessment that it was generally representative of effective corrosion control treatment (CCT). The EPA has consistently emphasized the health-based maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) for lead in the current LCR is zero and that there is no safe level of lead exposure. It is anticipated that the current action level will be significantly reduced.
History of the Safe Drinking Water Act
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the principal law governing drinking water safety in the U.S. It was originally passed by Congress in 1974 to protect public health by regulating the nation’s drinking water. The SDWA authorizes the EPA to set national health-based standards to protect against both naturally occurring and man-made contaminants that may be found in drinking water. The EPA, states and water systems then work together to make sure the standards are met.
The act has been amended numerous times to include 1986, 1988, 1996, 2002 and 2011. Previous amendments addressed lead leaching into drinking water from lead components and lead-lined tanks; banned the use of lead pipe, flux and solder and set a limit on the amount of lead plumbing fixtures and solder could contain; and required the EPA to establish secondary maximum contaminant levels (SMCLs) for those contaminants that affect the aesthetic quality of drinking water. These SMCLs comprised the National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWR) and are reflected in 40 CFR 143.
SDWA applicability to Army installations
Congress waived federal sovereign immunity to state and local requirements concerning SDWA. Section 1447 of the SDWA states, "Each federal agency having jurisdiction over any federally owned or maintained public water system ... shall be subject to, and comply with, all federal, state, and local requirements, administrative authorities, and process and sanctions respecting the provision of safe drinking water... and to the same extent as any nongovernmental entity." Therefore, U.S. Army installations are responsible for complying with all applicable federal, state and local drinking water regulations. Typical state and local regulations include operation and maintenance practices, design criteria, permit requirements (e.g., water withdrawal) and operator certification.
In the case of installations located within an area or state without primacy, the installation must comply with federal drinking water regulations. Army regulations (AR 200-1 and 420-1) require OCONUS installations to comply with country-specific FGS, which contain the federal drinking water regulations and host-nation regulations if they are more stringent than federal regulations. Army regulations pertaining to the provision of drinking water apply to all Army installations. They are found in AR 200-1, Environmental Protection and Enhancement; AR 420-1, Facilities Management; and AR 40-5, Preventive Medicine. These regulations refer to guidance and procedures outlined in Department of the Army Pamphlet 40-11, Preventive Medicine; Technical Bulletin, Medical 575, Swimming Pools and Bathing Facilities; TB MED 576, Sanitary Control and Surveillance of Water Supplies at Fixed Installations; Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) 3-230-03, Water Treatment; UFC 3-230-02; Operation & Maintenance: Water Supply Systems; UFC 3-230-01, Water Storage, Distribution, and Transmission; and UFC 3-420-01, Plumbing Systems.
Health effects of lead and copper
Lead and copper enter drinking water mainly from corrosion of lead- and copper-containing plumbing materials. Lead was widely used in plumbing materials until Congress banned its use in 1986. There are an estimated 6.5 to 10 million homes served by lead service lines in thousands of communities nationwide, in addition to millions of older buildings with lead solder. Lead exposure — whether through drinking water, soil, dust or air — can result in serious adverse health effects, particularly for young children. Infants and children exposed to lead may experience delays in physical and mental development and show deficits in attention span and learning disabilities. In adults, lead exposure can cause kidney problems and high blood pressure. Copper exposure can cause stomach and intestinal distress, liver and kidney damage, and complications of Wilson’s disease in genetically predisposed people.
Over the past decade, epidemiologic studies have consistently demonstrated that there is no safe level of lead. In particular, studies conducted in diverse populations of children consistently demonstrate the harmful effects of lead exposure on cognitive function, as measured by IQ decrements, decreased academic performance and poorer performance on tests of executive function. Lead exposure is also associated with decreased attention and increased impulsivity and hyperactivity in children.
In adults, long-term lead exposure results in increased blood pressure and hypertension. In addition to its effect on blood pressure, lead exposure can also lead to coronary heart disease and death from cardiovascular causes and is associated with cognitive function decrements, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and immune effects in adults. Copper has been demonstrated to cause gastrointestinal distress following short-term exposure and can cause liver and kidney damage during longer-term exposures. Copper exposures are of particular concern for people with preexisting conditions.
Summary of the current LCR
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA establishes national primary drinking water regulations which either establish a maximum contaminant level (MCL) or a treatment technique “to prevent known or anticipated adverse effects on the health of persons to the extent feasible.” The LCR is a treatment technique rule, first promulgated in 1991 and revised in 2000 and 2007, which requires water systems to conduct tap sampling for lead and copper to determine the actions water systems must take to reduce exposure to lead and copper. Recognizing that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, the LCR set a health-based maximum contaminant level goal of zero. The LCR established action levels of 0.015 mg/L (15 ppb) for lead and 1.3 mg/L (ppm) for copper, based on the 90th percentile sample level.
The action level for copper is set at the health-based MCLG for copper. The action level for lead is based upon EPA’s evaluation of available data on corrosion control’s ability to reduce lead levels at the tap. CCT typically involves the addition of chemicals such as orthophosphate, or chemical adjustment of drinking water pH, to reduce the corrosivity of drinking water and thus the level of leaching of lead and copper from plumbing materials. Whereas an MCL is an enforceable level that drinking water cannot exceed without violation, an action level is a screening tool for determining when certain treatment technique actions are needed. If the lead or copper action level is exceeded in more than 10 percent of tap water samples collected during any monitoring period (i.e., if the 90th percentile level is greater than the action level), a water system must take certain actions.
The type of action that is triggered depends upon the size of the system and the actions it has taken previously. All water systems serving more than 50,000 people were required to install CCT soon after the LCR went into effect. Systems serving less than 50,000 people are not required to install corrosion treatment if the system meets the lead and copper action levels during each of two consecutive six-month monitoring periods. Systems serving less than 50,000 people that exceed the action level and have not yet installed CCT must begin working with their state to monitor water quality parameters and install and maintain CCT. Any system that exceeds the lead action level must conduct public education. Any system with LSLs that exceed the lead action level after installing CCT must begin LSL replacement (LSLR).
If the upcoming changes EPA has planned to the SDWA switches from a technology-based to a health-based MCLG standard, the impact on Army installations could be significant. The aging infrastructure within DoD contains many water systems that have not been renovated. The elimination of CCT would require replacement of all water system lines and tanks containing any lead. Until the actual new standard is released, what effect it may have on military budgets will remain subjective.
With the current public attention on lead paint in military housing, additional media releases concerning lead exposure could potentially inundate safety offices with requests for information. Testing of water systems is normally performed by Preventive Medicine. Water sampling is performed on a designated schedule with samples sent off for laboratory analysis. Questions pertaining to testing results or health effect from consuming installation water should be directed to their office. Questions on other matters should be addressed to DPW. Prior coordination is required to determine which DPW office will address specific concerns. The DPW Environmental Office is capable of answering most questions not involving human health; however, specific questions pertaining to the water supply system should be addressed by an actual engineer. With prior coordination and a little advance planning, responding to these requests for information can be easily handled.