The GAO report states that, "…ensuring that the lead rule adequately protects public health and is fully implemented and enforced should be a high priority for EPA and the states because the potential consequences of lead exposure, particularly for infants and young children, can be significant." Lead is a serious health threat to children and pregnant women. It is particularly dangerous for children, who retain about 68 percent of the lead that enters their bodies while adults retain about 1 percent. Children exposed to lead experience low birth weight, growth retardation, mental retardation, learning disabilities, and other effects.
The GAO report found that:
EPA claims of widespread, national compliance with the rule are not supported by data and identifies "…significant and longstanding gaps in the amount of information available..." that impair the Agency's ability to oversee implementation of the lead rule. For example, even after an effort to update its data following the Washington, DC case, the EPA still does not have test results on over 30 percent of the community water systems. Through June of 2005, the EPA did not have any information regarding the implementation of actions required to reduce lead in drinking water for more than 70 percent of the nation's community water systems. In 2000, the EPA rulemaking regarding data collection requirements stated that this data was the only means available for EPA to evaluate progress in removing lead in drinking water. GAO found that EPA had not followed up on missing implementation data, and that it has been slow to act on potential underreporting of violations.
"Few schools and child care facilities have tested their water supplies for lead - or adopted other measures to protect users from lead contamination" and "no focal point exists at either the national or state level to collect and analyze test results.
The regulatory framework should be improved to ensure that public health is protected. GAO recommended that:
Homes and other sites of highest risk for lead be used for sampling.
Reduced monitoring be used only in appropriate cases and that systems resume standard monitoring following a treatment change. GAO evaluated EPA's compliance data and determined that 49 large and medium water systems were in violation of the action level and appeared to be on reduced monitoring schedules. A reduced monitoring schedule reduces the chance that high lead levels will be detected and that the public will be warned of a potential health risk.
Homeowners who participate in tap sampling should be notified of test results to protect their health.
Controls over when and how treatment changes are implemented should be adopted to avoid increases in lead levels.
Plumbing standards should be updated, reflecting availability of low-lead fixtures and GAO's finding that some products currently classified as "lead-free" leach high levels of lead into drinking water.
Jeffords, the Ranking Member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been the lead sponsor of the Lead-Free Drinking Water Act, which was introduced in the 108th and 109th sessions of Congress.
"Safe drinking water is not a privilege, it is a right. This GAO report confirms that there are large holes in federal safe drinking water regulations, the same ones I have sought to address since we learned of DC's water problems. The EPA has failed to act in a meaningful way to plug these gaps, even after the drinking water in the nation's capital was 'off-limits' for months. It is time to get the lead out. It is time to enact the Lead-Free Drinking Water Act," said Jeffords.
"It is deeply troubling that the EPA at this point has failed to implement the reforms necessary to protect public health. It is even worse that EPA, despite the fact that major problems were revealed almost three years ago, still lacks information to evaluate how effectively the lead rule is being implemented and enforced nationwide," said Dingell, the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has jurisdiction over the environment and hazardous materials. "Action by the Bush Administration to correct deficiencies in the lead and copper rule is long overdue."
"It is unacceptable that the Bush Administration cannot account for the water quality of more than 33 million Californians - including our children. The status quo of allowing our children's health to be put at risk while failing to take action is beyond irresponsible," said Solis. "I hope this report serves as a wake up call to the Bush Administration to take the needs of our water systems and our families seriously."