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Blood and Water

The Long Search for the Source of a Baby's Lead Poisoning

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2004; Page C01

A year ago, before the lead scare, before homeowners started testing their water and parents started testing their children, there was a small family living in an old house in the District's Petworth neighborhood.

They had a lead service line attached to their house and lead running through their copper water pipes. But they didn't know this. All they knew about was the lead running through their son's body.

Once the Ferreyras started using filtered water for cooking -- Niko had never drunk tap water -- their son's lead level dropped in half. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

_____Live Online_____
Transcript: Susan Allan of the Arlington County Department of Health and Human Services and Randy Bartlett of the Department of Public Works discussed lead levels in Arlington County water.
_____Drinking Water_____
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Officials Hid Facts On Lead, Suit Says (The Washington Post, Mar 8, 2004)
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D.C. Handling Of Lead Issue Blasted on Hill (The Washington Post, Mar 6, 2004)
Complete Lead Q & A
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At first it was just enough to worry his parents. At 1 year old, Niko Ferreyra had about 6 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, above the national average for children, 1.9, but below what the doctors consider "elevated," 10. Erin and Walter Ferreyra discovered this after one of Niko's routine visits to the pediatrician, and at first they didn't quite know what it meant.

They got advice from the doctor's office. They studied medical sites on the Internet. They learned about the dangers of lead from old paint. And they began a year-long effort to rid their house of lead that, as it turned out, may not have accomplished much at all. It never occurred to the Ferreyras that the lead could be in their water.

All the while, Niko's blood lead level kept rising.

Three years ago, the Ferreyras had bought their first house, a townhouse built in the '30s that they painted inside in vivid shades of salmon and red. They had their first child. When they learned about his lead level, they figured he was ingesting lead through old paint chips and paint dust. They started washing Niko's toys and hands frequently. Every morning, before they went to work, leaving Niko with a nanny or with his grandmother, they vacuumed the areas of the house where Niko played. Every evening, after work, they vacuumed again. They painted over the porch, even though Niko didn't play there, just to be careful. They watched where he went in the house, trying to keep him away from peeling paint.

"We didn't want him in the corners playing with his toys," Erin says.

"We wouldn't let him close to the radiator," Walter says.

They're sitting in their kitchen on a Monday night: Erin, 28, who works as a paralegal, and Walter, 40, an Argentine immigrant who works as a network administrator. Erin cranes her neck around again and again to check on 25-month-old Niko playing in the living room with a family friend, and smiles when she catches sight of him lumbering around. Luka, a large Lab-shepherd mix who seems to be composed mostly of fur and static, sprawls by the front door.

When the Ferreyras took Niko for a blood test a few months after the first one, his lead level had risen to 9 micrograms per deciliter, and it stayed at 9 through a third blood test. They were alarmed. Studies vary on just how much damage low lead levels can cause in children, but some scientists say that even levels as low as 5 or 10 can lower a child's IQ by several points. Lead can also lead to behavioral problems, scientists say. The younger the child, the more damage lead can do.

"There's no safe level of lead in the body," says Mary Jean Brown, who heads the lead poisoning prevention branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "There is a statistical probability that there will be some adverse health effects at blood lead levels as low as 5 or 6."

In early November, months before the Ferreyras would learn that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority knew there was excessive lead in the water of many District homes, and months before they would realize they were not alone, the couple had Niko tested again. Now, a year after he first tested at 6, his blood lead level had gone up to12, which is considered elevated. The doctor told them to watch Niko for signs of excessive clumsiness, like falling down a lot. That could be the lead affecting him. The Ferreyras were at their wits' end. They'd vacuumed. They'd washed. They'd watched.

"It was killing us," Erin says. "Whatever we did wasn't working."

The Ferreyras talked to a real estate broker about selling their house. They realized that if they put their house on the market they'd have to disclose its lead problems and might lose money on the sale. They felt stuck.

They decided to enlist the city's help, figuring that if laypeople couldn't find the source of the lead, maybe professionals could. Walter called the city, explained his son's problem and requested an in-home inspection for sources of lead. He says the person he spoke with informed him that the city could not do an inspection until Niko's blood lead level had reached 15. (Lynette Stokes, epidemiologist for the D.C. Health Department, says the city was following CDC recommendations.)

The city gave Walter names of companies that do in-home inspections, and for $427, the Ferreyras hired one. The inspector was the first person to suggest to the Ferreyras that the lead might be not in their son's play areas but in his water. Two draws revealed lead levels of 138 and 207 parts per billion, drastically above the acceptable limit of 15.

The strange thing about the case of Niko Ferreyra is that he had never been given tap water to drink. In an abundance of caution, Erin had always given him bottled water, and she usually drank bottled water herself. But by the time he was1 year old, even as Erin breast-fed him, she was also feeding him solids. And Erin boiled much of Niko's food in tap water.

"Rice, pasta, potatoes. Everything we cooked, we cooked with water," she says.

After the private inspection, the Ferreyras bought a $20 water filter for their kitchen sink at Sears.

They called a plumber. The plumber looked at their home and told them they had copper pipes. The Ferreyras began to suspect the problem water was coming from outside their house.

Erin called WASA and began a series of what she says were frustrating conversations.

She told WASA about her water's high lead counts and was told she'd need to test her water again with a WASA kit. She did the test, and after a week of waiting for results, she says she called WASA. She was told she would have to wait six to eight weeks. Erin contacted the office of D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, which contacted WASA; according to Erin's saved e-mail, WASA gave her the results the next day. (WASA spokeswoman Pat Wheeler says the agency informs citizens of their results as soon as they come in, regardless of the intervention of council members.) Although lower than those that came from the private inspector, the results were still elevated.

After that, WASA inspectors came to the Ferreyra home and did more thorough tests. The Ferreyras say they were told that, according to WASA records, they probably didn't have a lead service line, and then they were informed that they did. (They do.) Eventually, WASA placed them on the list of 1,600 service lines to be replaced in 2004.

The Ferreyras took Niko for another blood test. Between November and January, his lead level had dropped from 12 to 6. The only thing the Ferreyras did differently, they say, was boil his food in filtered water.

The Ferreyras are glad the city is replacing their service line, but they wish they had known about the problem long before they did. And they feel guilty, very guilty, that this happened to their only child, under their watch.

"As parents, it's kind of an automatic response," Erin says.

His parents are preparing him for preschool in the fall and wondering how the past year has impacted his health and his mind.

"We won't even know if that had any effect on him until years and years from now," Erin says.

In fact, they'll probably never know for sure. There's no control group, no Niko-as-he-might-have-been.

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