By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007
A group of Washington area parents and environmentalists has formally demanded that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order new tests of water in D.C. public schools, saying they don't trust local officials' assurances that some unusually high lead levels detected in school water in recent months were "isolated" findings.
The parents contend that they've been misled before about the severity of lead problems in the city's water supply. In a letter last week to the EPA, they argued that the D.C. school system's method for broader systemwide testing in February was skewed to register artificially lower lead levels. They said local and federal officials have given unclear and conflicting answers when questioned about the testing method's accuracy.
"We are very alarmed about the safety of our children, and nobody is giving us any straight answers," said Yanna Lambrinidou of Parents for Non-Toxic Alternatives, which joined in urging the EPA to intervene. "I have a basic question as a parent: Is the water safe for my child to drink at the fountain?"
The letter was sent on behalf of 50 parents, joined by organizations such as Clean Water Action, the D.C. chapter of Friends of the Earth and the Center for Health Environment and Justice.
The parents expressed concern that high lead readings in drinking water at five schools could signal a citywide problem. High lead levels are often a sign of dangerously corrosive water and posed a major health hazard in the city from late 2001 to 2004, after which the water utility changed the chemicals it used to treat the water.
Federal and local water utility officials say they have no fear of a citywide water problem and note that required sampling indicates the supply's lead levels fall below the federal threshold for concern.
EPA officials based in the Philadelphia regional office, who are responsible for monitoring the quality of the District's water, said they are reviewing the parents' allegations and had no immediate response to the demand for more testing.
Tests conducted from June to January found that 30 to 80 percent of the water fountains and taps in the five schools had elevated, unsafe lead levels; all told, 16 schools were tested. One fountain in a kindergarten class had a lead reading of 1,200 parts per billion. The EPA recommends that lead levels in school drinking water not exceed 20 parts per billion and urges that schools seek to reduce the amount to as close to zero as possible.
The school system did not inform parents or school board members about the results, which became public only after a D.C Council hearing. At the urging of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), the school system began fast-tracked testing at all schools and reported this month that it generally found safe lead levels.
The group of parents and environmentalists makes two central allegations. The first is that the school system has tried to give them false assurances, issuing news releases with the "good news" that 87 percent of the recent school tests met federal standards. But on further questioning, parents learned that at least one water fountain, cooler or sink in about three-quarters of 129 city schools for which data were available had elevated, unsafe levels of lead.
The second is the contention that the school system's testing method artificially lowered the systemwide lead test results. At the urging of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and with the EPA's knowledge, the school system flushed the water in each of the tested schools for 45 to 50 minutes before taking samples. WASA distributes the city's drinking water.
Paul L. Taylor Jr., a facilities maintenance official of the school system, said the city used a certified laboratory for the tests and developed the procedures in consultation with WASA and the EPA.
But the parents and environmentalists said the schools don't flush water pipes every morning before children drink from the fountains, so the tests do not reflect the risks.
They argued that WASA and the EPA knew such flushing would reduce lead levels, saying that during the city's lead crisis, both agencies urged residents to run the tap for 10 minutes before consuming the water.
Water that is not properly treated can become highly corrosive, then leach lead out of lead and brass plumbing fixtures and pipes, and make tap water hazardous to public health. Lead is a toxic metal, and exposure even at low levels has been proved to cause developmental and behavioral problems among children and infants.
Rick Rogers, an EPA official who has led a federal team trying to reduce lead in the water since dangerous amounts of the metal were found in thousands of D.C. homes in 2004, said he is sure those efforts are working. High lead levels in schools are just another example of an "elusive" lead problem in large buildings that the EPA can't explain.
"I don't believe it is a broader problem in the District's water," Rogers said, noting that citywide testing last year showed overall lead concentrations of 10 to 12 parts per billion. "Lead citywide is looking very low, very good," he said.
EPA regional enforcement official Karen Johnson, who has been advising the school system on testing, declined to comment on the validity of the school testing protocol and stressed that the EPA has no legal authority to force schools to address the problem of lead found in their water.
WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson said he couldn't comment on the accuracy of the school testing method or the safety of school water.
"That's a schools issues," he said. "All I'm saying is we're delivering water to the schools that meets EPA requirements."
Johnson said a top WASA water quality official recommended flushing the faucets for 50 minutes because the water in the fountains and taps being tested had not been used for two weeks and because such sitting water would not be typical of everyday use. The 50-minute flush was approved by the EPA, he said. EPA officials said they provided technical advice but did not approve the flushing time.