Lead and Copper Rule

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EPA illustration of lead sources in residential buildings

The Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) is a United States federal regulation which limits the concentration of lead and copper allowed in public drinking water at the consumer's tap, as well as limiting the permissible amount of pipe corrosion occurring due to the water itself. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first issued the rule in 1991 pursuant to the Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA promulgated the regulations following studies that concluded that copper and lead have an adverse effect on individuals.[1] The LCR sought to therefore limit the levels of these metals in water through improving water treatment centers, determining copper and lead levels for customers who use lead plumbing parts, and eliminating the water source as a source of lead and copper. If the lead and copper levels exceed the "action levels" water suppliers are required to educate their consumers on how to reduce exposure to lead. A 2004-2005 study of the LCR by EPA noted that the system had been effective in 96 percent of systems serving at least 3,300 people.[2]

EPA has stated that the LCR has reduced exposure to lead "that can cause damage to brain, red blood cells, and kidneys, especially for young children and pregnant women." It also explained that the rule has reduced copper exposure "that can cause stomach and intestinal distress, liver or kidney damage, and complications of Wilson’s disease in genetically predisposed people."[3]


Although lead is a known poison, the mechanical and chemical characteristics of the metal continue to keep lead as an important component in many products. In water supply, lead's durability and workability selected it for use as water pipes. Lead alloys (bronze, brass) are used for plumbing fittings. Lead solders were preferred in plumbing. While lead pipes were replaced by other materials, such as plastics, early in the twentieth century, lead alloys continued to be used.[4] Although new lead pipes weren't installed later in the 20th century, some existing lead pipes remain in service in many cities.

The U.S. Public Health Service published a non-enforceable standard for lead in 1925, consisting of a tolerance limit of 0.1 mg/L.[5][6]

Partially because of lead pipes, some states regulated the corrosivity of water put into the distribution system. Waters which would deposit a protective coating on the pipes rather than dissolving the pipe were preferred. Corrosion indexes such as pH or Langelier Saturation Index are not necessarily representative of the lead corrosion potential in a particular water/pipe system, nor did they measure the amount of lead to which customers were exposed.

In the second half of the twentieth century, concern was growing about what constituted a safe level of lead.

The 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act amendments defined "lead-free" plumbing and prohibited the use of plumbing for public water supply that did not meet the new definition.[7] The amendments also required EPA to set standards limiting the concentration of lead in public water systems.


EPA first issued the Lead and Copper Rule on June 7, 1991.[8] The latest modification was issued October 10, 2007.[9]

Following the adoption of the 1991 rule, public water systems serving more than 50,000 people were required to survey their own corrosion control systems and to replace their pipelines with state-approved corrosion control by January 1, 1997. Suppliers who served a smaller number of people only had to replace their pipelines if action levels were exceeded at the tap.[2]

EPA published the Lead and Copper Rule Minor Revisions (LCRMR) in January 2000. This rule required water suppliers to install the best available corrosion control mechanisms and to continually observe water levels, even if corrosion control was implemented. The revisions were effective April 11, 2000.[2]

Additional corrections and minor revisions were made in 2004 and 2006.

EPA published a white paper in 2016 discussing options for additional revisions to the rule.[10]

Congress passed the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act in 2011. This amendment, effective in 2014, tightened the definition of "lead-free" plumbing fixtures and fittings.[11] To implement the amendment, EPA published a proposed rule in 2017. The final rule is pending as of 2019.[12]

Key features of the rule[edit]

  • The contaminant originates in the customer's piping rather than the source water or water company piping
  • Action Level
  • Sampling
    • Customer Tap
    • First Draw after 6 hours contact time
    • Targeted locations
  • Detailed educational requirement
  • Service line replacement.

The action level for lead is 0.015 mg/L. The action level for copper is 1.3 mg/L. Water suppliers must monitor locations as specified in the rule. If more than 10th percentile of tap water samples exceeds the action level, action must be taken. Actions may include investigation, recommendation of treatment, installation of treatment, checking of source water, removal of lead containing plumbing, and public education.[3]

Since most of the lead found in drinking water leaches from lead service lines, the customer's pipes, fittings, and solder rather than from the source water, special sampling is necessary. Although the chemistry is complicated, the lead dissolved in the water generally increases with the amount of time the water has been in contact with the pipe. "First draw" samples must be water which has stood motionless for at least six hours.

The site selection process prioritizes sites by the likelihood of finding high lead concentrations which could impact people. Building codes and building records may be used to estimate the types of plumbing and solders at various buildings. Residential buildings are preferred over commercial, for sampling. Only taps from which water is consumed are tested. The age of plumbing is taken into account, as older piping may reach an equilibrium with the water.

Unusual features of the rule[edit]

Because the source of lead and copper is generally the customer-owned piping (bronze and brass faucets, copper pipe, solder) rather than any part of the water supplier's plumbing, equipment, or even the original source of water, the Lead and Copper Rule is quite unlike any of the other provisions of the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. To some extent, the water supplier is made responsible for the quality of water sampled at pipes and locations completely out of the supplier's control. The most unusual features of the rule follow from this difference.

While MCLs are risk-based, and the code requires the water supply take various actions based on the MCL, the Lead and Copper Rule regulates the level of contamination at the customers' taps based on "action levels." No MCL is set for lead or copper. This method allows some percentage of the customer taps to exceed the "action level" without the water system having to take action. Especially for the larger systems, having the water supplier change the tendency of the water to dissolve lead in the customer plumbing may be more cost effective than having thousands of customers replace plumbing.

Also, because the source of lead and copper is the customer plumbing, lead and copper sampling is specified to be "first draw."

Most other water samples are taken by the water supplier's personnel. Trained personnel using consistent procedures generally yield more reliable data. The first draw sampling procedures make water supplier sampling impractical. Rather than have a technician spend six hours in a customer's home, the water supplier may leave the sample bottles and sampling instructions with the consumer.[13]


EPA was investigated by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2003 following the discovery of higher-than-acceptable copper and lead levels in tap water in the District of Columbia. The GAO reported that EPA had not been collecting copper and lead levels from the states, despite claims that the levels of copper and lead have decreased; data for 72 percent of water systems were missing. EPA may have been lacking data because more resources were being dedicated to lead regulation than lead reporting.[14][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Regina L. Mcgill, "The Influence of an Educational Fact Sheet on Small System Water Supplier Attitudes toward the Lead and Copper Rule," Journal of Environmental Health 56.4 (1993).
  2. ^ a b c Bhardwaj, Vipin (2005). "Question & Answer: Lead and Copper Rule Revisions". Journal of Environmental Health. 68 (5): 46.
  3. ^ a b Lead and Copper Rule: A Quick Reference Guide (Report). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). June 2008. EPA 816-F-08-018.
  4. ^ Rabin, R (2008). "The lead industry and lead water pipes "A Modest Campaign"". Am J Public Health. 98 (9): 1584–92. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.113555. PMC 2509614. PMID 18633098.
  5. ^ U.S. Public Health Service, Washington, DC (1925). "Report of the Advisory Committee on Official Water Standards." Public Health Rept. 40:693. April 10, 1925.
  6. ^ Faust, Samuel D.; Aly, Osman M. (1998). Chemistry of Water Treatment (2 ed.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-57504-011-0.
  7. ^ United States. Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986. "Prohibition on use of lead pipes, solder, and flux." 42 U.S.C. § 300g-6(d). Pub.L. 99–359, approved 1986-06-19.
  8. ^ EPA. "Maximum Contaminant Level Goals and National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for Lead and Copper; Final Rule." Federal Register, 56 FR 26460, 1991-06-07. 40 CFR Part 141, Subpart I.
  9. ^ EPA (2007-10-10). "National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for Lead and Copper: Short-Term Regulatory Revisions and Clarifications." Federal Register, 72 FR 57782
  10. ^ Lead and Copper Rule Revisions; White Paper (PDF) (Report). EPA. October 2016.
  11. ^ United States. Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act. Pub.L. 111–380; 124 Stat. 4131. Approved January 4, 2011.
  12. ^ EPA (2017-01-17). "Use of Lead Free Pipes, Fittings, Fixtures, Solder and Flux for Drinking Water; Proposed Rule." 82 FR 4805
  13. ^ EPA. "Part 141: National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. Subpart I: Control of Lead and Copper." Code of Federal Regulations, 40 C.F.R. 141.86.
  14. ^ Fields, Scott (2006). "Taking the Lead and Copper Rule to Task". Environmental Health Perspectives. 114 (5): 276. doi:10.1289/ehp.114-a276. PMC 1459959.
  15. ^ EPA (2010-08-27). "National Review of LCR Implementation and Drinking Water Lead Reduction Plan." Archived February 27, 2010, at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]