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D.C., U.S. Underreported Number of Kids With High Lead Levels by More Than Half

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009; B01

More than twice as many D.C. children as previously reported by federal and local health officials had high levels of lead in their blood amid the city's drinking water crisis, according to congressional investigators, throwing into doubt assurances by those officials that the lead in tap water did not seriously harm city children.

The new information was uncovered by a House subcommittee investigating the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's performance and has raised congressional concern about whether the agency properly alerted District residents to a health risk from unprecedented levels of lead in the water.

Local officials could not say Monday whether some children with unsafe lead exposure have gone without intervention to reduce health risks.

The CDC and city health department had reported dangerously high lead levels in 193 children in 2003, the worst year for high concentrations of lead in city tap water. But lab data gathered by congressional investigators this year show that the actual number was 486 children.

The subcommittee's investigators uncovered the higher figures by seeking the data directly from all D.C. labs that analyze local test results. After the lead problem became public in 2004, blood tests from thousands of city children taken in 2003 were inexplicably missing from D.C. government files.

Using the partial data, the CDC, the nation's leading public health agency, and the D.C. Department of Health published a paper reporting that they were not finding a significant increase in children with dangerous lead levels.

"There is no indication that DC residents have blood lead levels above the CDC levels of concern," Mary Jean Brown, the CDC's top lead poisoning prevention official, wrote in a summary of her paper. She wrote the report with the Department of Health in March 2004 after residents and Congress learned about the lead problem.

Brown stressed at the time that from 2001 to 2004, blood lead levels among the city's children and adults were generally dropping as levels in the city's water were rising.

The 2003 data on blood tests for children were considered critical in measuring whether a widespread spike in lead in the city's drinking water had harmed children's health. That year, the city found tens of thousands of city homes with elevated lead in the water. It was not until 2004 that the public was alerted to the problem and many residents began protecting themselves and their children by switching to filtered or bottled water. Since then, the city has changed its water treatment. Lead levels have fallen and are at historical lows.

Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the investigations and oversight subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, which is conducting the inquiry, said the new findings raise questions about the CDC's performance.

"Parents thought that they didn't have to worry about lead in their children's drinking water because they trusted CDC," Miller said. "The CDC can't lend their credibility simply to assure the public that there is nothing to worry about. If they say everything is fine, then everything better really be fine."

In letters sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) on Monday evening, Miller requested more agency documents. He said the CDC should have known it had "wildly incomplete" data when it published research that "suggested there was no danger to children and the public from elevated lead levels in the water."

"The disparity in the numbers reported by the CDC and the data obtained by the subcommittee is extraordinarily disturbing," Miller wrote, adding that the missing data "should have set off warning bells that the CDC could not rely on the numbers being provided for public health statements."

In a written statement, CDC officials declined to comment on the new data, saying they had not seen it.

Fenty's office released a statement saying: "The Administration looks forward to receiving the findings of the congressional investigation related to the 2003 lead reporting between DOH and the CDC and, once reviewed, we will use its findings to better serve D.C. residents."

Recent research at Children's National Medical Center indicates that children who lived in neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of lead in the water -- Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights and northern sections of Ward 4 -- were much more likely to have elevated lead in their bloodstream.

Blood test results are collected when doctors and labs report the results to the city health department, which monitors children to try to reduce their exposure to lead. Fetuses and children younger than 6 are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, and high levels can cause a permanent loss in IQ, motor coordination and the ability to communicate.

In 2001 and 2002, the health department had collected results from 16,042 children and 15,755 children, respectively. But in 2003, results from only 9,229 children were on file with the department.

After the lead problem was reported in January 2004, Brown and her deputies from the CDC questioned city health officials about why they had fewer tests. They responded that some labs did not report test results of low lead levels. Brown told The Washington Post this year that she believed that the missing data would probably not affect the findings in her paper because they did not involve high lead readings.

On Monday, CDC officials said that Brown did not ask for the data because labs are required to report to the District. "CDC has no authority to require that laboratories report directly to it," according to the CDC statement.

John Rosen, a pediatric expert on lead and the head of the lead-poisoning prevention program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, expressed surprise that officials drew conclusions based on data they knew was incomplete and did not seek the missing data from the labs.

"This is unacceptable science, and it's unacceptable public health, and the losers are the children who may suffer a lifetime from elevated lead exposure," he said.

The 2003 test results suggested that the incidence of dangerous lead exposure was falling in the District, a decline cited in a George Washington University paper.

William Walker, the chairman of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority board, said that he could not comment about data he had not seen or how health agencies performed in 2003 but that he is eager to learn more about the House panel's findings.

"If this is true -- that there are a lot more kids with elevated lead -- it's of great concern to us," Walker said. "We're going to look at the data and see what the committee comes out with in their investigation and respond accordingly."

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