Lead in Drinking Water Examined at June 6th Capitol Hill Briefing

The urgent issue of lead in drinking water was examined at a Capitol Hill briefing on June 6th co-hosted by the Northeast-Midwest Institute (NEMWI) and the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE) International, in collaboration with the Congressional Caucus on Corrosion Prevention.  The briefing addressed the current state of lead contamination in America’s drinking water and a variety of potential policy responses. In attendance were Congressional staff, policy experts, and individuals from non-governmental organizations. The event featured a panel with experts from NEMWI, NACE International, and Environment America.  Following presentations by the four expert panelists, the panel discussed the most pressing problems surrounding this issue and fielded questions from Congressional staff and other attendees..

Executive Director of NACE International Institute Helena Seelinger, as the moderator, began opened the briefing by emphasizing the importance of water safety and corrosion controls in the wake of the Flint water crisis and the subsequent discovery of lead in drinking water across the country. She then introduced John Rumpler, Senior Director of the Clean Water for America Campaign for Environment America, who presented his recent report about lead in drinking water, Get the Lead Out. Rumpler emphasized that lead in drinking water is primarily a children’s health concern, as children suffer the worst impacts from consuming lead. He further explained that most taps constructed before 2014 are at risk for containing lead above the desired levels. Finally, he touched on the wide-spread nature of the crisis. This is an issue facing the entire nation; 24 million children are at risk for adverse lead effects, 90% of schools tested have higher than preferred lead levels, and service lines are not the only path through which lead can enter drinking water. In spite of these serious dangers, Rumpler highlighted that, of 31 states studied, 22 are failing to respond adequately with anti-lead policies.

Terry Greenfield, President of NACE International, continued the briefing with a discussion of corrosion controls. He emphasized that current corrosion control practices could have prevented the Flint crisis if they had been implemented correctly. He added that, because we have the ability to control the process of corrosion, this is as much a management issue as it is a technological one. He argued that managers and administrators of these local water systems should assume that water quality levels are as bad as their worst-performing tests indicate to avoid the chance of a Flint-like crisis. In other words, he said, administrators should be proactive in stopping corrosion before it occurs.

Dr. Sri Vedachalam, Director of the Safe Drinking Water Research and Policy Program at NEMWI, presented highlights from a recent report released by NEMWI, Lead in Drinking Water: Post-Flint Media Coverage and Policy Changes in the Northeast-Midwest Region. He started by noting that this issue is particularly salient to the NEMW because Midwestern and Northeastern states tend to have older infrastructure which is more susceptible to corrosion and high lead levels. He summarized research on media coverage of lead in drinking water across the 18 states studied by NEMWI. This analysis found that lead in water was an issue across these states and even across over 60% of the  Congressional districts in the region. He also detailed the policy steps taken in these states to address this problem. He noted that there are many gaps in state policies, with most states implementing effective measures in some areas but falling short in others. He concluded that a federal policy could be more comprehensive and could establish the necessary minimum level of water quality.

Sylvia Hall, the Principal Corrosion Engineer for Sylvia Hall Engineering, explained how these issues had been discussed over 25 years ago and how the Flint crisis renewed public awareness of the problem. She offered further information about how the threat of corrosion led to changes in the way the American public consumed water, such as the increasing use of bottled water and filters.

The presentation slides used at the briefing can be found here and here.