By Carol D. Leonnig and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 28, 2009; B01
D.C. Council members asked the city's inspector general yesterday to investigate whether public health agencies and the water utility "negligently or intentionally" misled the public during the District's water crisis in 2004 and whether they should have looked harder for a correlation between high levels of lead in the water and health risks to children.
The request for a probe came as a new independent study was released that found that the number of toddlers and infants with dangerous blood-lead concentrations -- those that can cause irreversible IQ loss and developmental delays -- more than doubled in neighborhoods that had the worst lead problems, starting in 2001.
D.C. parents and environmental activists expressed outrage at the findings, reported yesterday in The Washington Post, which showed that 42,000 fetuses and children younger than 2 during the city's lead problems were at high risk of irreversible damage. They accused government officials of downplaying the health risks at the time.
"They didn't want to find a problem, so they didn't," said Capitol Hill parent Satu Haase-Webb. "They had the data. They chose to ignore it. What they did is bordering on gross criminal neglect."
The findings, based on blood tests available to health agencies, contradict public statements made by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the D.C. Department of Health, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency. Those agencies said there was no evidence that the city's lead crisis had affected residents' health.
"Specifically, we want to know if there is a correlation between elevated lead levels and lead-poisoned children, and if so, whether District authorities negligently or intentionally misled the public," council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 4) wrote to Inspector General Charles Willoughby.
Several parents said yesterday that the public health agencies and water utility underestimated possible harm to avoid blame. Dangerous concentrations of lead began showing up in the District's drinking water in 2001 because of a water treatment change, and the issue persisted for three years until a February 2004 Post article revealed the severity of the problem.
In 2003 and 2004, the tap water in some homes had hundreds and thousands of times the level of lead considered safe. WASA officials spotted the rising lead in 2001 but concealed it from authorities, a federal investigation found. The D.C. Department of Health and the EPA were made aware of the high levels in 2003 but did not warn residents of the risks or urge them to drink filtered or bottled water.
Two months after the problem was made public, the CDC released a report with the city health department that concluded that there was no measurable evidence that high lead levels in thousands of homes had caused individuals' blood-lead levels to rise.
"If there is a report or study today that reaches conclusions different from those of local and federal health officials four or five years ago, it should be forwarded for their review and response," WASA General Manager Jerry Johnson said.
The CDC's director of lead poisoning prevention, Mary Jean Brown, said in a prepared statement yesterday that it was unfortunate that the CDC study was repeatedly cited by government officials as proof of no problem.
"It may have been helpful to more clearly state and explain the limitations of CDC's involvement, particularly the limitations of the health consultation," she said. "In retrospect, some people have misinterpreted the intent and scope of the health consultation, including characterizing it as a scientific study, which it clearly was not."
The District's attorney general, Peter J. Nickles, said yesterday he is still waiting to review a copy of the study, co-authored by Virginia Tech and Children's National Medical Center, so that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) can decide what steps his administration can take to protect public health. "If we see the data is qualified, and it shows we need to act, we will act," Nickles said.
Capitol Hill resident Andy Bressler said the study confirms what he and his wife suspected years ago when blood tests showed their twin boys, then 3, with elevated lead levels. The twins just turned 8, and the couple wonders whether one son's speech and balance problems are linked to lead.
"It kind of backs up everything we believed over the years -- that a lot of what happened was not fully investigated, either by D.C. or EPA," he said. "Our hope is that while a lot of this is somewhat water under the bridge, we hope it is a good signal to folks at WASA that they do a better job of investigating rather than cover things up."
Yanna Lambrinidou, president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, a grass-roots group, said she is devastated by the findings but also relieved that the information is out.
"The story, in my opinion, is alarming because of the no-harm message from 2004 onward," she said. "The people responsible for the initial coverup in 2001-04 were able to keep their positions and continue to run an agency [WASA] with the same troubling message and practices they had used before."