updated 3/7/2005 3:12:11 PM ET 2005-03-07T20:12:11

Stricter monitoring and reporting of problems with lead in drinking water will be required of utilities, states, schools and child care facilities, the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday.

EPA officials said they found few such problems nationally, but were moving to impose stricter requirements in its 1991 lead and copper regulations starting early next year, because of problems with lead in drinking water that surfaced in 2002 for thousands of residents in Washington, D.C.

Those problems only gained widespread attention two years later, and residents complained that the city did little to alert them.

EPA proposes that utilities notify states at least 60 days before making changes in treatment and better control corrosion in pipes. Utilities also would have to notify residents of any testing within a home or facility. Lead service lines that don’t meet requirements would have to be re-examined after any major changes to drinking water treatment.

Also being updated is the agency’s 1994 guidance on testing for lead in schools’ drinking water.

Ben Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, said the plan would “increase the accuracy and consistency of monitoring and reporting, and it ensures that where there is a problem, people will be notified and the problem will be dealt with quickly and properly.”

Cost is important, but the chief concern “is protection of public health,” Grumbles said.

EPA’s regulations, which affect both lead and copper in drinking water, also are intended to improve management of lead service lines and customer awareness of any problems.

President Bush proposed cutting EPA spending by nearly a half-billion dollars next year, most of that from clean water programs. He wants to reduce by one-third the low-interest loans to states for water quality protection and decrease by 83 percent spending on replacing aging water treatment facilities and pipes.

Bush, however, said that one of the chief tasks facing the next EPA chief would be to “lead federal efforts to ensure the safety of our drinking water supply,” which would also play “an important role in the war on terror.” Last week, the president nominated the acting administrator, Stephen Johnson, a career employee, as EPA head.

Lead is a highly toxic metal used for years in many household products. Pregnant women and infants are the most vulnerable to lead, which can cause kidney and brain damage and, in some cases, death.

Even at low levels, it can cause behavioral problems and learning disabilities in children, who are most at risk at ages six and under when the brain is developing.

Since 1991, the agency has required drinking water utilities to reduce contamination if lead concentrations exceed 15 parts per billion in more than 10 percent of taps sampled.

There are about 54,000 community water systems supplying 268 million Americans, or about 90 percent of the U.S. population, according to American Water Works Association, a trade group.

EPA said its review shows the current regulations are adequately protecting more than 96 percent of water systems that serve 3,300 people or more. In the past three years, the agency said, there have been only four large water systems that had unsafe lead levels: Washington, D.C.; St. Paul, Minn.; Port St. Lucie, Fla., and Ridgewood, N.J.

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