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PUBLIC HEALTH

EPA Moves to Make Drinking Water Safer

Signs in English and Spanish said fountains at a D.C. maternal health-care center were closed for testing during the District's lead crisis in 2004.
Signs in English and Spanish said fountains at a D.C. maternal health-care center were closed for testing during the District's lead crisis in 2004. (By Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new national water regulations yesterday that it said will help reduce lead in drinking water, keep utilities honest in testing for lead and warn the public when water poses a health risk.

The revised drinking water rules require that water utilities notify customers as soon as they find high lead levels in water. The rules also strengthen and clarify how utilities should test for lead, to reduce the chances of utilities reporting artificially rosy test results that mask lead problems. The rules also require that utilities get permission from regulators before changing water treatment.

"Today's action will help get the lead out and keep it out of our drinking water," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water. "The public must have confidence in the safety of their tap water, which is, ounce-for-ounce, one of America's greatest and most affordable assets. EPA's targeted improvements will clarify requirements for utilities and provide more timely and useful information for the public."

Many of the revisions to the regulations on lead were prompted or informed by a lead crisis in the District's water supply that was first revealed early in 2004, more than two years after the utility noticed lead levels rising. The public learned in news reports in January 2004 that its drinking water contained dangerously high, record-setting levels of lead. It was a fact the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and EPA knew from extensive testing of hundreds of District homes in the previous year, but had not announced to the public.

The news spurred a public outcry, congressional hearings and six separate investigations about why it happened, and why local and federal authorities hadn't acted more quickly to fix it. Ultimately, EPA concluded that a switch in water treatment it had approved for the District's water, from chlorine to chloramines, had made the water more corrosive and caused massive lead leaching from faucets and lead pipes in the water system.

A subsequent EPA audit showed WASA had violated many testing rules by not testing in homes where it would most likely detect lead problems if they existed, and discarding test results that found high lead levels.

A Washington Post investigation in late 2004 found that dozens of utilities across the country were using identical testing methods that broke EPA rules, in ways that masked higher lead readings and concealed potential health risks in their water.

Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer and Virginia Tech professor who was among the first to diagnose the city's lead problem and warn of flaws in EPA's lead regulations, applauded the new rules yesterday but said more action is needed.

"The revisions go a long way toward addressing the deficiencies we learned about in 2004," he said. "We have, since that time, learned about many problems, and it is obvious there will have to be a future set of revisions. For example, our recent data prove that the EPA approved method of measuring lead in water, can miss much of the lead that can be present and which contributes to childhood lead poisoning."


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