D.C. Officials Say Tap Water Is Safe

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

D.C. water officials tried yesterday to assuage public fears that a spike this spring in toxic chlorine pollutants in the city's tap water posed a health risk to the 1.1 million people who rely on it for drinking water.

At a news conference, leaders of the Washington Aqueduct and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority said high levels of chlorine toxins found in May in District water tests conducted by an environmental group were probably temporary. They predicted that average water quality measured over the full year would meet federal safety standards.

The toxins are linked in some health studies to cancers, reproductive problems and developmental delays in children. Some studies also suggest that the healthy growth of fetuses can be impaired when pregnant women are exposed to high doses of the toxins in the second and third trimesters.

Officials at the aqueduct, which treats the water, and WASA, which distributes the water to customers, said they are studying ways to improve the treatment process to reduce the toxins. They said that they could do better at informing the public about water quality issues and that they want to be as "transparent" as possible about the presence of chlorine compounds.

"Absolutely, the water that comes to the tap is safe to drink," said Thomas P. Jacobus, general manager of the aqueduct, which provides water to the District, Arlington and Falls Church. "But we don't want to look like we're hiding anything. Perhaps sometimes we don't do the best job we could of communicating."

Tap water tested at 18 locations across Washington by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group showed that 40 percent of the samples had concentrations of chlorine contaminants higher than federal safety limits.

The environmental group's report was released amid lingering skepticism about the District's general water quality. The credibility of WASA, the aqueduct and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has primary responsibility for regulating District water, was battered in 2004 by media reports that the city's drinking water supply had long-running problems with hazardous lead contamination. The lead levels had begun rising in 2001, but all three government agencies failed to alert the public to the well-established health risk.

Several residents said that they should have learned from the utility, not an independent environmental group, about the rise in unsafe levels of chlorine pollutants. Aqueduct and WASA officials said yesterday that the rise was expected.

The chlorine toxins, called disinfection byproducts, are formed when the chlorine used to kill disease-causing bacteria reacts with organic materials in the Potomac River, the city's raw water source. The findings highlight the challenge for water utilities: The brew of chemicals needed to turn polluted water such as the Potomac's into potable water might also create a health risk.

Residents and activists said the news reinforced concerns that WASA and other water officials aren't sufficiently forthcoming about water quality issues.

"I would want, as a parent, to have heard that information from WASA a while back," said Yanna Lambrinidou, a parent in Northwest Washington and president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, which has been pressing for solutions to high lead levels in the water of D.C. public schools. "I would want to go to bed every night knowing that WASA is taking proactive measures to find any problems that may be affecting our health or our children's health. This suggests that's not happening."

Jacobus and WASA officials said they know of no conclusive evidence that short-term increases in chlorine pollutants are dangerous. They said that they are engineers, not health professionals, who ensure that the water supply meets EPA standards.

The Environmental Working Group, which specializes in gathering data on environmental problems, said District water officials and the EPA are downplaying the suspected health risks as they use low-cost methods to produce clean tap water. The EPA requires utilities to take samples each month and allows them to average the results over the year for several locations.

"Being legal is not the same as being safe," said Richard Wiles, executive director of the environmental group. "These so-called safety standards are a compromise between cost and protecting public health. But for pregnant women and their children, this annual average idea is not a valid concept for protecting them."

Wiles said a little advance warning is called for: "What the utility needs to do here -- when they expect an increase and add more chlorine -- they should just tell people and let people make the decision about whether they want to take action to protect themselves."

Jacobus said that in the next year or two, the treatment facility plans to recommend a major treatment upgrade that it expects will greatly reduce the disinfection byproducts.

WASA water quality engineer Rich Gianni said the utility also has been reviewing whether to continue the annual chlorine flush of the system that caused the high levels of disinfection byproducts, notably haloacetic acids.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company