Lead in DC Drinking Water Could Signal National Problem

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 8, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lacks enough information to know if the elevated lead levels found in the District of Columbia's drinking water are indicative of a national crisis, agency officials said Wednesday.

The federal agency has no current information on lead levels from 78 percent of the nation's public drinking water systems and has no data from as many as 20 states.

"The numbers are indicating to us that it is not a crisis, but we are not comfortable with the amount of the data we have received to date," said Ben Grumbles, acting assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Water.


Benjamin Grumbles is the top EPA official responsible for water. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Federal regulations enacted in 1991 under the Safe Drinking Water Act - known as the Lead and Copper rule - require states to inform the EPA every three months whether or not utilities meet the agency's safe lead level of 15 parts per billion.

Grumbles, who testified Wednesday at a Senate Fisheries, Wildlife and Water Subcommittee hearing on the District's lead problems, offered no explanation for the lack of information.

The EPA has initiated a national compliance review "to determine whether or not there is a national problem - and to determine how well the current rule is being implemented," he told the Senate panel.

The hearing came in the wake of a petition signed by 1,377 District of Columbia residents and sent to the Congress calling for rapid action to reduce lead levels in the city's drinking water.

Children exposed to lead experience low birth weight, growth retardation, mental retardation, and learning disabilities, and it is harmful to pregnant women.

Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, said he has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the EPA's enforcement of the lead provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

"I urge the agency to immediately initiate nationwide testing to ensure we do not have a nationwide lead problem," Jeffords said.

"How did we get to the point where the futures of children living in our nation's capital are threatened every day by the water in their faucets and bathtubs?" Jeffords asked. "How did we get to the point where water tests revealed startlingly high lead levels, but yet that information was never provided to residents who unnecessarily exposed themselves, their unborn children, and their children to lead-contaminated water?"

Jeffords said many people who live and work in the District have switched to bottled water but he expressed concern that "because bottled water is not regulated in the same manner that tap water is, we cannot even find out if our bottled water is safe."

"Safe drinking water is a right, not a privilege," the senator said.


Lead service line connected to copper pipe (Photo courtesy Alban)
Jeffords said his legislation would modify the Safe Drinking Water Act to eliminate lead service lines, pipes and lead fixtures, as well as improve communication and require immediate notification of households receiving water with elevated lead levels.

Vowing to get to the bottom of the District's lead problems, Jeffords told his colleagues "each of us has a responsibility for the residents of the District of Columbia."

"The residents of Washington, DC deserve to get answers from federal and local officials," Jeffords said.

The answers DC residents have gotten thus far have done little to satisfy them.

The vast majority only learned of the elevated lead levels in their drinking water after a report on the front page of "The Washington Post" on January 31, 2004.

To date, water has tested unacceptably high for lead in more than 5,000 homes and schools in three districts in the DC metropolitan area - a few have tested as high as 6,000 parts per billion.

Federal and local officials say the high lead levels are the result of efforts by the Washington Aqueduct, which supplies water to the District and parts of Northern Virginia, to comply with federal regulations to control corrosion of pipes.

In 2000 the Washington Aqueduct, which is run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and supplies the Washington Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) with water, added chloramine - a combination of chlorine and ammonia - to the water to limit corrosion.

But this caused the lead to leach from lead service pipes that has resulted in the elevated lead levels in drinking water. Tests in 2002 by WASA revealed elevated lead levels in more than 50 percent of test samples.

Additional tests in 2003 found that 4.075 of 6,188 residences tested had levels above the EPA's safe lead level.

EPA officials say WASA violated federal law by failing to properly sample water and to use the correct language to notify the public about high levels of lead in the water.


Drinking tap water may mean ingesting lead if the pipes carrying the water are corroded. (Photo courtesy USDA)
"It is clear that WASA was inadequate in conveying to the public the severity of the problem," said EPA Region III Administrator Don Welsh. "It is unacceptable to us that many families in the District live in fear of the quality and safety of the water they drink."

There is also evidence that local and federal officials knew of the elevated levels and failed to notify the public, said DC resident Gloria Borland.

"If the [Washington] Post had not exposed this scandal, our children today would still be drinking lead contaminated water," she told the subcommittee. "We were deceived [by WASA] and the EPA and Army Corps went along with this deception."

Dr. Daniel Lucey, interim DC chief health officer, said "there is no clear correlation between a concentration of lead in the water and a concentration of lead in the blood," but his statement did little to convince New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

The fear for parents is real, said the New York Democrat, because recent scientific findings show "no level of lead is safe."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter as the level of concern for lead in children, but recent studies have found harmful effects at even lower levels.


Lead exposure is associated with development defects and neurological damage in children. (Photo courtesy USDA)

"We need to level with people," Clinton said. "If we can not provide safe drinking water in our nation's capital, then that is a terrible indictment on all of us."

WASA General Manager Jerry Johnson defended his actions and told the Senate panel "our focus was on trying to comply with federal regulations as opposed to looking at a broader picture and the need to get information to our customers."

WASA has distributed water filters to 27,000 households and is seeking review of a $1.7 billion proposal to replace every one of its lead service pipes by 2010.

The solution for the District may come from Washington Aqueduct, which is analyzing a chemical fix to the problem that could be tested by June and implemented system wide by September.

"We have confidence this change will be effective in reducing lead leaching," said Thomas Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But DC residents are wary of another chemical fix and many want stronger action - including replacement of lead service lines and better oversight by the federal government.

"We parents are angry," Borland said. ""All they had to do was warn us."

"The only answer is to put WASA under federal leadership," she told the subcommittee. "Only under federal control will you be able to restore the trust in the water that we parents need."

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry offers advice for dealing with high lead levels in tap water online at: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/spotLights/leadinwater.htm