Lead Levels in DC Drinking Water Dropping

WASHINGTON, DC, March 14, 2005 (ENS) - The DC Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) is encouraged by "a significant drop" in the lead levels of recent samples of District of Columbia tap water, General Manager Jerry Johnson told lawmakers Friday. “We’re very optimistic."

Johnson testified at a hearing before U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, which continues to probe the responses of government agencies to high levels of lead discovered in February 2004 in the drinking water of the Capital District and surrounding suburbs.

Elevated levels of lead in DC drinking water are due to increased water corrosivity, and are aggravated in some homes by the presence of lead service lines, a technical committee determined.

Johnson attributed the promising drop in lead levels to the addition of the corrosion control chemical orthophosphate to the water six months ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Washington Aqueduct.

The Washington Aqueduct produces and supplies the water that WASA distributes through its pipes to District residents.


Jerry Johnson is general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. The Authority provides retail and wholesale water and wastewater treatment services to two million customers in DC and parts of Virginia and Maryland. (Photo courtesy WASA)
Orthophosphate is a commonly used corrosion inhibitor that is added to finished drinking water. In addition to its current use in the District of Columbia, the chemical is being used as a corrosion inhibitor in cities including Richmond, New York City, Denver, and Detroit. It works by forming a protective coating inside of pipes in the distribution system and in customer homes to prevent lead from leaching into drinking water.

When high lead levels were found in DC drinking water, residents with lead service lines were advised to run the water for at least 10 minutes before using it for drinking or cooking. This tap flushing exercise was intended to ensure that residents did not drink too much lead, a highly toxic metal that even at low levels, lead can cause behavioral problems and learning disabilities.

In a small area in the northwest part of the District, the Washington Aqueduct began on June 1, 2004 to apply orthophosphate in the form of phosphoric acid, to help begin to control the lead leaching from lead service line pipes. Last August, the chemical was added to the full DC water supply system.

WASA has been monitoring the distribution system to insure that water quality is being maintained and that no adverse affects have resulted due to the addition of orthophosphate.


Washington DC drinking water has lower lead levels today than it did last year at this time. (Photo credit unknown)
Of the first 19 samples taken from homes in 2005, none had lead levels above 15 parts per billion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for compliance testing, said Johnson. The decline appears to continue a trend first detected in the fourth quarter of 2004, he said.

“We anticipate completing the rest of our compliance sampling by early May," said Johnson.

Johnson says it is too early to predict WASA's long term compliance with respect to meeting the standard contained in the Lead and Copper Rule. This rule requires that 90 percent of the tap water samples taken by WASA during back-to-back six-month periods over two years must be below 15 parts of lead per billion.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to propose regulatory changes to the Lead and Copper Rule by early 2006, head of the EPA's Office of Water announced last week.

"We need to free people from worrying about lead in their drinking water," said Ben Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water. "This plan will 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."


Benjamin Grumbles is EPA assistant administrator for water. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Grumbles told the committee that the agency's regulatory changes will address monitoring to ensure that water samples reflect the effectiveness of lead controls, to clarify the timing of sample collection, and to tighten criteria for reducing the frequency of monitoring.

The regulation governing treatment processes will be changed to require that utilities notify states prior to changes in treatment so that states can provide direction or require additional monitoring.

The EPA will also revise existing guidance to help utilities maintain corrosion control while making treatment changes, said Grumbles.

Because all lead enters water after it leaves the main system to enter individual homes and buildings, the Lead and Copper Rule is the only drinking water regulation that requires utilities to test water at the tap.

Grumbles explained that this also means individual homes will have different levels of lead in their tap water due to the age or condition of pipes, plumbing materials and fixtures or other factors. For this reason, customer awareness and education are important components of the Lead and Copper Rule and state and water utilities lead reduction programs.

So under the new regulations planned for next year, the EPA will require that water utilities notify occupants of the results of any testing that occurs within a home or facility.

And the EPA will seek changes that allow states and utilities to provide customers with utility-specific advice on tap flushing to reduce lead levels.

There will be new regulations covering management of lead service lines to ensure that service lines testing below the action level are re-evaluated after any major changes to treatment which could affect corrosion control.

The agency will update and expand 1994 guidance on testing for lead in school drinking water. Grumbles said the EPA will emphasize partnerships with other federal agencies, utilities and schools to protect children from lead in drinking water.


A lead service line is usually a dull gray in color. Lead pipes usually have a ball or bulge in the neck of the pipe. A copper service is shiny. (Photo courtesy Oneida Water Department) (Photo courtesy )
In addition, the agency will convene a workshop in mid-2005 to discuss actions that can be taken to reduce the lead content of plumbing fittings and fixtures. The EPA intends to promote research in key areas, such as alternative approaches to tap monitoring and techniques for lead service line replacement.

At the same hearing, an industry group of 57,000 treatment plant operators and managers, scientists, environmentalists, manufacturers, academicians, and regulators, indicated that it is already moving in the directions outlined in the regulations the EPA will propose.

Over the past year, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) has organized workshops, webcasts, and sessions at national and regional conferences on managing lead exposure," said Stephen Estes-Smargiassi, director of planning at Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, who delivered the AWWA testimony.

Lead contamination of drinking water is the result of lead in home plumbing and fixtures, which is beyond the control of a drinking water utility, Estes-Smargiassi told the committee.


Washington, DC mothers bring their babies to a Public Citizen demonstration against lead in their city's drinking water. (Photo courtesy Public Citizen)
"The means available to drinking water systems to mitigate the degradation of water passing through pipes and fixtures in home plumbing involves controlling the water’s corrosivity," he said.

Last year, the AWWA recommended the use of orthophosphate to control corrositivity and stands behind that recommendation, he said.

The AWWA recognizes that managing the corrosivity of drinking water is "complex and sometimes in conflict with utility efforts to meet other important water quality objectives," said Estes-Smargiassi. So the organization developed a management framework to help drinking water utilities "pro-actively" evaluate changes in treatment or operations which might impact corrosivity and other water quality factors, he said.

"The framework is now completing peer review, a process that has included the participation of recognized academic and engineering experts as well as state and federal drinking water regulators," said Estes-Smargiassi. "We anticipate distribution to member utilities early this spring."

In addition, he said the AWWA's peer- reviewed journal has published new research. "We direct mailed information to raise member utility awareness about lead in drinking water at homes and in schools, as well as incorporated practical advice on addressing lead into our routine publications."

The AWWA has prepared a guide that provides drinking water suppliers with information and tools they may use to assist school and child care administrators in addressing lead in drinking water, said Estes-Smargiassi.

Grumbles said the EPA's review of state and utility implementation of the Lead and Copper Rule shows the has been effective in more than 96 percent of water systems that serve 3,300 people or more.

More information on National Review of LCR Implementation and Drinking Water Lead Reduction Plan is available online at: http://www.epa.gov/safewater/lcrmr/lead_review.html

Information about lead in drinking water is available online at: http://www.epa.gov/safewater/lead or by calling the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.

Information about lead around the home is available online at: http://www.epa.gov/lead or from EPA's National Lead Information Center (NLIC) at 1-800-424-LEAD.