Contaminated drinking water is more widespread in communities throughout the U.S. than many realize. To date, it hasn’t been addressed adequately or equitably. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established its Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) in 1991, providing guidance on sampling and testing water for the presence of these toxic contaminants. However, it has been largely ineffective. Recent revisions to the LCR focus on identifying contaminants and mitigating their effects in water service lines in homes, schools and buildings across the country to meet water quality standards.

Revised Rules to Drive Out the Lead

Lead was widely used in plumbing materials until banned in 1986. As a result, an estimated 6.5 million to 10 million homes in the U.S. have lead service lines.

The LCR was revised and finalized in December 2020, putting forward extensive changes to better identify and address the leaching of lead from service lines, solder and various plumbing fixtures. The revisions improve sampling for more representative results and close loopholes that have allowed improvements to be delayed or left unidentified.

The revised LCR targets lead service lines with more specific and aggressive requirements. LCR rule updates include:

  • Required testing in all schools and childcare facilities.
  • Science-based water sampling procedures.
  • Establishment of trigger levels for earlier mitigation in more communities.
  • Increased number of complete lead service line replacements (targeting 2%-6% increase per year).
  • Requirements for water systems to identify the locations of lead service lines.

Tapping Into the Source

There is no safe level of exposure to lead, as it bioaccumulates in the body, posing serious risks to the brain and nervous system. Unfortunately, obtaining water samples that would trigger LCR actions have been rare because of the sampling procedures put in place under the original rule. LCR loopholes have allowed many problematic lead service lines known to remain in service.

The original LCR sampling procedures were often not sampled correctly or not reflective of actual conditions. Using science-based water sampling procedures and easier-to-use guidance, the updated LCR prioritizes addressing lead service lines.

Revised compliance water sampling includes both a first liter and fifth liter sample for homes and buildings with lead service lines. It is expected that adding the fifth liter protocol will increase observed lead levels compared to taking only the first liter out of the tap. Water service providers must adopt new protocols to identify and mitigate lead release on a per-site basis, including coordination and communication with customers.

The updated LCR requires sampling from schools and childcare facilities. Mitigation plans must be developed for these high-risk locations, with results to be communicated and actions taken to reduce lead in drinking water.

The revised LCR also mandates more robust methods to locate and act on the presence of toxic contaminants in drinking water. Because it is essential to identify and reduce lead exposure risk, the new LCR helps close loopholes to speed up finding and removing materials containing lead in drinking water systems.

Now is the time for water service providers to take proactive measures to adopt the new LCR. With the right strategies in place, providers can meet the new regulations and better protect communities at large.


The revised LCR introduces considerable changes to address the risk of lead in drinking water proactively. Systematic actions can identify and prioritize improvement opportunities within the water system to achieve LCR requirements and optimize cost.

Read The White Paper

Nathan Dunahee, PE, is a lead process engineer with Burns & McDonnell. He has experience in drinking water evaluation, optimization and design. Nathan serves on two of the American Water Works Association’s technical committees that focus on emerging water quality concerns, taste and odor, and optimization.