Removing Lead from the Drinking Water of Millions of American Children

The funding in the Build Back Better Act, combined with funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, will be, by far, the most significant funding for removing lead from drinking water in U.S. history.

Marcelina Pedraza drinking a glass of filtered water at the home she shares with her daughter Edie, 10, in the East Side neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, on June 3, 2021. When Marcelina Pedraza had her water tested for lead in January 2020, lead was present in three samples.

Taylor Glascock for NRDC

The Build Back Better legislation that has just passed the House includes nearly $10 billion to remove lead drinking water pipes from the ground and to address lead in school drinking water. This historic investment will have a transformative impact on improving the safety of the drinking water for tens of millions of Americans, including millions of school children who are essentially drinking every day from lead straws.

In neighborhoods across the country, Americans will start seeing lead pipes pulled out of the ground, lead-containing water fountains removed from schools, and filtration stations installed in schools to remove lead from their kids’ water. As this work is completed, parents will be able to feel confident that their children can safely drink from their kitchen faucets and school fountains. 

This is far from a theoretical concern for too many families. As NRDC’s recent survey of lead service lines showed, there are an estimated 9 to 12 million of the garden hose–size lead service lines in all 50 states that bring water from the water main in the street into homes. Once these are pulled out of the ground and replaced with safe copper pipes, lead levels in household tap water will plummet and the water will be far safer. In addition, in thousands of schools, lead-contaminated water is common. For example, testing across New York State found that 82 percent of the schools had at least one outlet contaminated with lead at a level higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action level for lead. Lead is especially dangerous for young children and pregnant moms. It can reduce children’s IQs, cause learning disabilities and hyperactivity, interfere with impulse control, and cause irreversible harm to the developing brain. It is also associated with cardiovascular and kidney disease in adults.

Benton Harbor Community Water Council volunteers distribute bottled water to Benton Harbor, MI residents on October 9, 2021. The water was delivered by the state of Michigan after high levels of lead were discovered in the city’s water supply. Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has pledged to replace every lead water line in the city in 18 months.

Taylor Glascock for NRDC

The funding in the Build Back Better Act is split between $9 billion for the EPA for lead service lines and lead in school water, and nearly $1 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for removing lead pipes from small water systems. This once-in-a-generation investment, combined with funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, will be, by far, the most significant funding for removing lead from drinking water in U.S. history.

This funding must be accompanied by strong implementation by federal, state, and local authorities. Priority should be given to helping low-income disadvantaged communities, who should be first in line to receive funding. Additionally, EPA needs to overhaul its lead in the drinking water standard, called the Lead and Copper Rule. As discussed in earlier blogs, EPA is currently considering revising the weak Trump administration Lead and Copper Rule, which must be substantially revamped and strengthened to protect families around the country who have been drinking lead-contaminated water.

The Build Back Better agenda will benefit tens of millions of Americans for generations to come. Once the lead is removed, the threat of lead from these service lines and school fountains will be gone forever. That’s truly great news. 

About the Authors

Erik D. Olson

Senior Strategic Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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