CDC misled District residents about lead levels in water, House probe finds

Some District water tested in 2004 contained high levels of lead.
Some District water tested in 2004 contained high levels of lead. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010

The nation's premier public health agency knowingly used flawed data to claim that high lead levels in the District's drinking water did not pose a health risk to the public, a congressional investigation has found. And, investigators determined, the agency has not publicized more thorough internal research showing that the problem harmed children across the city and continues to endanger thousands of D.C. residents.

A House investigative subcommittee concludes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made "scientifically indefensible" claims in 2004 that high lead in the water was not causing noticeable harm to the health of city residents. As terrified District parents demanded explanations for the spike in lead in their water, the CDC hurriedly published its calming analysis, knowing that it relied on incomplete, misleading blood-test results that played down the potential health impact, the investigation found.

The city utility says lead levels have been in the safe range in D.C. water since 2006, after a chemical change to reduce lead leaching. But the House report raises concerns about children in 9,100 residences throughout the city with partial lead-pipe replacements. Their parents may not know CDC research has found that children in such homes are four times as likely to have elevated lead in their blood.

The House science and technology subcommittee investigation, scheduled to be released Thursday, was spurred last year by one scientist's research and Washington Post reporting suggesting that the 2004 CDC analysis was missing many test results for children who might have lead poisoning. With its final report, the committee reveals that the missing data showed clear harm to children from the water -- and that CDC authors knew the data was flawed. It finds that CDC officials "failed in their public health duty."

Pediatric lead experts advise concerned parents to monitor their children's behavior to determine whether they have noticed coordination, hearing or mental-focus problems or changes. Parents who witness such changes should have their children's blood tested for lead.

Late Wednesday, the CDC declined to directly rebut the House investigators' findings. Instead, it released a brief re-analysis based on the missing tests, which it said confirms the original 2004 findings that residents did not suffer significant harm.

The agency acknowledged, however, that its 2004 claim that no children had been found with lead poisoning was "misleading," because it referred to only one part of its study. Another part showed that children living in homes serviced by a lead pipes were more than twice as likely as other D.C. children to have unsafe lead in their blood.

Yanna Lambrinidou, head of a parents' activist group that formed in the lead crisis, said the CDC, the city water utility, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the D.C. Health Department knew that lead was spiking in the water but did little to fix it or warn the public.

"CDC gave the perpetrators of D.C.'s lead crisis a 'get out of jail free' card," Lambrinidou said. "They will finally have to answer for what they did."

When nearly 1 million residents throughout the District and in small parts of Falls Church and Arlington learned from a Post article in January 2004 that they had been exposed to unsafe lead in water for at least a year, the CDC analysis was largely used to quiet public anger. The study has since been cited as evidence that even astronomically high lead levels are not cause for concern.

Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), the subcommittee chairman, said the CDC report "left the public health community with the dangerous and wrong impression that lead-contaminated water is safe for children to drink."

Lead is a toxic metal long known to cause brain damage and developmental delays in fetuses and children when they or their pregnant mothers ingest significant amounts.

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