Time to Test Your Water? Lead in Ohio’s Drinking Water, and Monitoring Requirements Under the Lead and Copper Rule

by Megan M. Hunter, Esq.*
*admitted to practice in New York

Over the weekend, the American Red Cross and other volunteers distributed water to the residents of Sebring, Ohio following concerns about elevated lead levels in the Sebring Public Water System.  In response to the concern, Sebring’s schools cancelled classes on Friday and held a lead screening clinic for children under 6 and pregnant and breastfeeding women on Sunday.  Pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants, and children receiving water from the Sebring Public Water system remain advised to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, and formula preparation, and the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency continues to distribute water through the Sebring Community Center.

The concern came after tests found lead levels at 21 parts per billion in 7 homes, which exceeds the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion (note: while 15 parts per billion is the level at which the EPA requires the operator of a system to institute corrosion control treatment, there is no safe level of lead in the human body, making any level of lead in drinking water a reason for concern).  A recent press release by the Ohio EPA explains some of the steps the agency is taking to address the situation.

Ohio EPA’s drinking water advisory webpage states at least 12 lead advisories have occurred in public water systems across the state during the past year.  Some of these advisories have been for the water systems of schools and child care facilities.

Since 1986, federal law has required pipe, solder, or flux used in the installation or repair of public water systems, and plumbing in residences or other buildings that provides water for human consumption and is connected to a public water system, to be lead free.[1]  However, many homes still have lead service pipes or lead soldering in copper home plumbing.   The lead in these service pipes and home plumbing becomes problematic when water with corrosive characteristics causes lead to leach into drinking water.  Thus, a water system’s lead problems may only manifest in particular homes, buildings, or portions of a distribution system that are more susceptible to lead leaching from water corrosivity because of the material makeup of particular water distribution infrastructure. 

This article is one in a series on lead contamination in Ohio and is intended to serve as an introduction to the monitoring methodology required by the US EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule with the hope of highlighting some of its limitations.  Individuals concerned about lead exposure in drinking water in their homes, schools, or child care facilities should have these specific sites tested for lead.  As a Resident Attorney at Fair Shake, I am developing a practice to help modest-means families address their environmental concerns.  Please feel free to contact us for further information about legal recourse regarding lead exposure.

 The Lead and Copper Rule

The US EPA promulgated the Lead and Copper Rule (“the Rule”) in 1991 under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) in order to minimize lead and copper levels in drinking water by reducing water corrosivity.  The Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) applies certain standards to “public water systems,” which generally means systems providing water for human consumption through pipes or other conveyances that have at least 15 service connections and serve at least 25 individuals.  Therefore, the Lead and Copper Rule’s regulations are limited in application to public water systems and do not apply to private wells.  The Rule uses a combination of monitoring, reporting, notification, education, water treatment, and infrastructure replacement requirements to attempt to reduce the public’s exposure to lead through drinking water.

Targeted Sampling

Under federal law, community water supply systems are required to identify whether lead from piping, solder, caulking, interior lining of distribution mains, alloys, and home plumbing is present in their distribution system and report that information to the State.  Additionally, water systems must identify and report the presence of copper from piping and alloys, service lines, and home plumbing; galvanized piping, service lines, and home plumbing; ferrous piping materials such as cast iron and steel; and asbestos cement pipe.[2]  The Lead and Copper Rule requires public water systems to use this information to identify a pool of targeted sampling sites to use in monitoring compliance with lead standards.[3]  If this information is not sufficient to create a targeted sampling pool of the requisite size, the system must review all plumbing codes, permits, and records in the files of the building departments that indicate the plumbing materials in structures connected to the distribution system, as well as all inspections and records of the distribution system indicate the material composition of service connections connecting structures to the system, and all water quality information that indicates a particular area may be susceptible to high lead or copper concentrations.[4]   Systems are also required to collect information pertaining to lead and copper susceptibility during the course of its normal operations when possible (e.g. checking service line materials when reading water meters or doing maintenance work).[5]

Sample Size

Under the Rule, standard sampling requires systems serving over 100,000 people to sample from 100 taps in the distribution system.[6]   This number drops to 60 taps for systems serving between 10,001 and 100,0000 people; 40 taps for those serving between 3,301 and 10,000 people, 20 taps for systems with 501 to 3,300 people, 10 taps for 101 to 500, and 5 taps for those systems serving 100 or fewer people.[7]  These numbers are cut in half for reduced sampling requirements (with the exception of the requirement for systems serving 100 or fewer people, which remains at 5 taps under reduced sampling requirements).

Generally, these sampling sites must be taps in single family structures that contain copper pipes with lead solder installed after 1982 or that contain lead pipes or are served by a lead service line (the rule labels these sites “tier 1 sampling sites”).[8]  In the instance multi-residence buildings comprise at least 20% of structures served by a distribution system, the system may include multi-family structures in the sampling pool.[9]  Distribution systems lacking a sufficient number of tier 1 sampling sites may complete sampling requirements using multi-family residences and other buildings containing copper pipes with lead solder installed after 1982, lead pipes, or served by a lead service line (“tier 2 sampling site”).[10]  Distribution systems without tier 1 and 2 sampling sites sufficient to complete sampling requirements may sample from taps in single family residences containing copper pipes and lead soldering installed before 1983 (“tier 3 sampling sites”).[11]  Lastly, a distribution system without sufficient tier 1, 2, or 3 sites to meet sampling requirements must sample from taps throughout the distribution system that are representative of materials commonly used throughout the system.[12]

A distribution system that contains lead service lines must draw 50 percent of the samples it collects each monitoring period from sites containing lead pipes or copper pipes with lead solder and 50 percent from sites served by a lead service line.[13]  If the water system cannot identify a sufficient number of sampling sites with lead service lines, it must sample from all sites identified as being served by lead service lines.[14]

Timing of Monitoring

Initially, samples are taken every 6-months.[15]  However, if a system’s sampling demonstrates it is below the lead action level for two consecutive 6-month periods, it may shift to reduced reporting requirements.[16]  Reduced reporting requirements use smaller sample sizes and require less frequent reporting.  A system with 50,000 users or less may shift to reduced sample sizes and only report annually once it has been at or below action levels for lead for 2 consecutive 6-month monitoring periods.[17]  A system of that same size may shift to triennial reporting once it has been at or below lead action levels for three consecutive years.  Water service systems of any size may shift to reduced reporting sampling sizes and annual reporting if they meet their State’s Optimal Water Quality Parameters for two consecutive 6-month monitoring periods.[18]  Systems of any size may shift to triennial reporting after three years of meeting their State’s Optimal Water Quality Parameters.

What Happens If They Find Lead in Some Samples?

If more than 10% of the samples taken in the monitoring process described above have lead levels exceeding 15 parts per billion, the water system will be required to begin corrosion control treatment steps; conduct source water monitoring and install source water treatment if necessary; and provide public education materials within 60 days of the exceedance informing users of how to reduce their lead exposure.  The water system may be required to replace lead service lines if the treatment does not correct the problem.


[1] 40 CFR 141.43(a).  The rule defines lead free as follows: solders and flux containing not more than 0.2% lead; pipe and pipe fittings containing not more than 8% lead; and not more than a weighted average of 0.25% lead for wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures intended by the manufacturer to dispose water for human ingestion. 40 CFR 141.43(d) and 42 USC 300g-6(e).

[2] 40 CFR 141.42

[3] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(2)

[4] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(2)

[5] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(2)

[6] 40 CFR 141.86(c)

[7] 40 CFR 141.86(c)

[8] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(3)

[9] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(3)

[10] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(4)

[11] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(5)

[12] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(5)

[13] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(8)

[14] 40 CFR 141.86(a)(8)

[15] 40 CFR 141.86(d)

[16] 40 CFR 141.86(d)(4)

[17] 40 CFR 141.86(d)(4)

[18] 40 CFR 141.86(d)(4)