Forget the Lemon – I Want Some Lead in My Water

Posted on 18 August 2010

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By Wilma Chan

One of the most critical functions of government is to protect our health from hidden dangers in our homes, schools, and workplaces.  In particular, we rely upon our government to protect us from dangers that we, as individuals, are powerless to address.  Major milestones in the field of public health improvements in the last century include vanquishing threats like botulism, smallpox, and polio, as well as protecting people and the environment by tackling chemical contamination left over from decades of unregulated dumping of hazardous wastes.  Today, we face another urgent call for our government to step in and protect future generations from a serious health threat that lurks in schools and homes.      

Hundreds of recent health studies prove exceedingly low levels of lead exposure are dangerous – even at levels that were previously believed “safe.”  Small amounts of lead leaching from our plumbing can cause kidney disease, hypertension, reduced brain function, hearing loss, nervous system disorders, bone marrow damage, and even death.  Lead in the bloodstream robs us of our future because it is even more toxic to children.  There is simply no reason that lead should still be allowed in our drinking water plumbing.  

In response to the dangers of lead, our government has taken steps to reduce our exposure.  In the 1970s, the use of lead in paint and gasoline was phased out.  In 1986, a federal law was enacted to reduce lead in our drinking water plumbing.  However, faucets sold today can still contain up to a quarter pound of lead and still be labeled as “lead-free” under the 1986 federal law.  Here is how it works.

This 1986 federal law, and a subsequent amendment in 1996, established requirements for “lead free” drinking water plumbing.  However, under the heading of “things aren’t always what they seem to be,” this federal law actually allows up to 4 percent lead content in faucets and up to 8 percent lead in drinking water pipes.  The typical household faucet weighs about six and a half pounds.  That means a typical household faucet can contain up to a quarter pound of lead and still be labeled “lead free” under the federal safe drinking water law.  We’ve long known that lead contained in a faucet or other household plumbing will leach into the drinking water as that water passes through the plumbing.  So how safe can a faucet be that contains a quarter pound of lead?   

California Pioneers the Path  

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-California) wants to remedy this injustice and has introduced a federal bill, H.R. 5289, to truly eliminate lead from our drinking water plumbing.  H.R. 5289 is closely patterned after legislation that I authored while serving in the California Legislature.  

In February 2006, while serving as the chair of the Assembly Health Committee in the California Legislature, I introduced a bill to create the toughest lead standard in the world for drinking water plumbing.  The plumbing industry fought hard to weaken the law (sound familiar?) as it moved through the California Legislature.  Having failed in that effort, they made an aggressive pitch to Governor Schwarzenegger to veto my bill, claiming that the lead standard in my bill could not be manufactured by the faucet industry.  But Governor Schwarzenegger showed a strong commitment to a more healthy future for our children and he signed my Assembly Bill 1953 into law.  Today, every major plumbing company is manufacturing and selling faucets in California that meet this tough new lead standard which will help achieve “zero leaching of lead” from faucets in homes and in our schools.  I am proud that California became the first state (and the first government in the world) to enact a lead content standard this stringent for protecting children’s health.  Since California enacted this new lead content standard for drinking water plumbing, two other states – Vermont and Maryland – have also enacted statutes modeled after my bill.  With Representative Eshoo’s H.R. 5289, this same vital public health benefit can be enjoyed by the entire nation.   

H.R. 5289 provides robust protections and appropriate governmental oversight to ensure that faucet companies actually comply with the tough standard set forth in the Eshoo bill.  H.R. 5289, as part of a larger bill dealing with drinking water protections, was passed by the House just before its summer recess.  Industry lobbyists say they support the bill, but they tried to make “minor” amendments to this bill that would allow private laboratories, rather than the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), certify that their faucets are safe.  The manufacturers would like to be allowed to make their own determinations as to how to test and demonstrate compliance with the new lead standard.  In other words, industry says “trust us.”  We should not be fooled into allowing the proverbial fox to guard the henhouse.

Why is government oversight so important to ensure lead is kept out of our faucets?  Most faucets are made of copper, zinc, and lead.  Lead, the most toxic of these metals, is also the cheapest.  Over the past twenty years, plumbing fixture manufacturing has moved offshore. Now, the vast majority of faucets sold in the U.S. are manufactured overseas where there is little regulatory oversight, leading to familiar product recalls for imported toys, pet food, and building materials.  We now have abundant proof that in today’s global economy the complex, impossible-to-track material supply chain and the drive for profit can be a deadly combination.  Now more than ever, we need strong governmental oversight over these imported faucets to ensure that they are meeting the strong federal standard.  We cannot risk the health of our children by allowing self-certification of faucets.       

Lead is Worse than You Think

There is no doubt that lead in faucets is a serious hazard.  The USEPA and California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment both conclude that 15-20 percent of children’s lead exposure comes from drinking water.  The USEPA further states, “The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures which can leach significant amounts of lead into the water.”  

While safe for no one, lead is particularly toxic to children.  On average, children under the age of six will absorb and retain about 50 percent of the lead they ingest.  Unlike some other contaminants that the body is able to remove, lead accumulates over time and can cause irreversible brain injury in children.  A 2009 study revealed that lead can permanently affect children’s ability to think and to control their behavior and emotions.  Recent medical studies have pointed to lead as a cause of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), with a 2006 medical study concluding that lead exposure accounts for 290,000 excess cases of ADHD in children.  If that isn’t bad enough, recently published medical studies link children’s exposure to lead with committing violent crime later in life, including murder, which is associated with more severe cases of childhood lead poisoning.

Recent investigations have revealed the startling truth about the lead our children are exposed to in their schools.  In 2004, it was reported that 80 percent of schools tested in the Seattle School District had at least one fountain that dispensed water with lead levels above the USEPA’s limit, and one even dispensed water with a lead concentration 80 times higher than the limit.  In 2009, it was reported that 92 percent of the schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District had at least one fountain dispensing water with levels of lead above the USEPA’s limit.  Despite these alarming discoveries, there are no laws that require school districts to test their fountains.  

In fact, California lawmakers introduced bills in 2008 and 2009 to require testing of school drinking water fountains for lead, and both bills failed.  Sadly, California regulators have known about the problems for decades.  A 1998 report by the California Department of Health Services (DHS) estimated that 18 percent of California’s public elementary schools had lead levels in their drinking water that were above the USEPA’s limit.  The more recent comprehensive testing completed in Seattle and Los Angeles suggests that the DHS estimate was a significant underestimate.  To stop the lead poisoning of our children, it is critical that the federal government act now to prohibit the use of lead in drinking water plumbing.

Clearly there are tremendous costs to society if we don’t get the lead out of our faucets.  Childhood lead poisoning costs the U.S. as much as $319 billion annually in lost productivity.  H.R. 5289 would save billions in long-term public health costs and would reduce childhood lead exposure and its horrifying effects.  This is an indisputably cost-effective intervention.   

Faucet industry lobbyists are hard at work to weaken H.R. 5289 to their advantage.  They argue that they can best determine whether their products comply with the proposed standard, and that government agencies such as the USEPA shouldn’t stand watch.  We have seen this before – industry argues that only they can understand and regulate their complex business.  The BP oil rig disaster and recent financial meltdown make it all too clear that self regulation leaves all of the power in the hands of the regulated industry.  We and future generations will suffer from these stunning examples of industry’s failure to self-regulate.  In light of the evidence, why should we trust the faucet industry to police itself, particularly when we are dealing with something as toxic as lead?       

Now it’s time for the U.S. Senate to follow the House’s lead to enact the same standard that has been enacted in California, Vermont, and Maryland.    

Industry tried to weaken California’s safe lead standard and failed.  Now they are playing the same game at the federal level.  Let’s not give them the chance to win at our expense.  H.R. 5289 should be adopted without industry amendments and without delay. 


Wilma Chan, former California State Assemblywoman. The U.S. Senate is poised to act on one of the most significant public health threats in our everyday lives – urge them to pass Congresswoman Eshoo’s H.R. 5289 to ban lead in our faucets.  

A big factor that produces lead in water is the water disinfectant chloramine. (See the debacle in Washington DC where VERY high lead levels were found in the water in many homes.) Chloramine leaches lead from lead pipes and plumbing fixtures. Get rid of the chloramine and the problem nation-wide would be greatly reduced.

Lead in the bloodstream robs us of our future because it is even more toxic to children. There is simply no reason that lead should still be allowed in our drinking water plumbing.

The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures which can leach significant amounts of lead into the water.