Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is getting a lot of flak for his answer to a question from Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing:
Cardin: I want to continue on clean water for one moment. We've had significant problems with safe drinking water and clean water. Let me ask you a preliminary question. Do you believe there is any safe level of lead that can be taken into the human body, particularly a young person?
Pruitt: Senator, that’s something I have not reviewed nor know about. I would be very concerned about any level of lead going into the drinking water or obviously human consumption, but I've not looked at a scientific research on that.
Critics are slamming him for not being informed on the research (here's Rep. Keith Ellison). Mother Jones is reporting that “the science on this issue is clear” and quotes both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the EPA, which both state that there is no known safe blood level for lead in children.
But Cardin wasn’t asking about safe levels of lead in human blood. The way his question was phrased, it sounds more like he’s asking if there’s any safe level of lead that can be taken into the human body, which I believe should be interpreted as questioning whether there’s any safe level of lead in drinking water. That’s a very different question than asking about levels in blood.
I’m a science editor, and I wasn’t sure of the answer, so I checked to see what the EPA says. And it turns out that the EPA defines lead-free piping as piping that has a weighted average of less than 0.25 percent lead. That’s not zero, though it’s very close.
Section 1417 of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) establishes the definition for “lead free” as a weighted average of 0.25% lead calculated across the wetted surfaces of a pipe, pipe fitting, plumbing fitting, and fixture and 0.2% lead for solder and flux. The Act also provides a methodology for calculating the weighted average of wetted surfaces.
Sure, you can argue that Pruitt should know what the EPA defines as lead-free if he’s going to lead the department. But this exchange does not indicate that Pruitt thinks it’s fine that kids drink water contaminated with lead.