Correction to This Article
This article about a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on lead contamination in the District's water system incorrectly said that the report was the first time the agency publicly acknowledged a measurable health risk from the lead crisis the city experienced in the past decade. The agency publicly acknowledged that finding in June; the report was the first time the CDC published its data. Also, the article incorrectly said the CDC report indicated that partial pipe replacements may have exacerbated health risks. George Hawkins, general manager of D.C. Water, said the partial replacements might have made the lead problem temporarily worse in some homes.

Water in thousands of D.C. homes might still be contaminated by lead, CDC says

By Ashley Halsey III and Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 9:13 AM

The water in almost 15,000 D.C. homes that received repairs during a massive effort to remove lead pipes may still be contaminated by dangerous levels of the metal, according to a report released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If those residences are home to small children, pregnant women or anyone with a compromised immune system, the water should be tested, said George Hawkins, general manager of D.C. Water.

The CDC concluded that homeowners who had pipes only partially replaced may have made the problem worse. The center also confirmed that children living in the District were exposed to an increased risk of lead poisoning from 2000 to 2006 as an inadvertent result of efforts to disinfect the water supply that caused lead pipes to corrode and leach into the water that flowed through them.

The findings are a sharp reversal by the federal health agency, which initially said it had found no evidence of measurable or significant harm to public health. A congressional inquiry concluded in May that the CDC knowingly used false data in making a "scientifically indefensible" claim that the water was safe to drink.

The report marks the first time the CDC has publicly acknowledged that there was measurable health risk from the city's lead crisis and that the primary remedy appears to have been flawed.

The CDC said it "found that children living in housing where a lead service line was partially replaced after 2003 were more likely to have [elevated blood lead levels] than children living in housing without a lead service line." It went on to say that "partial lead service line replacement was not effective in decreasing risk for [higher blood lead levels]," with the risk similar to that for people who never had their lead lines replaced.

"This is the CDC telling us something we knew and acted upon," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has been critical of partial pipe replacements. "Not only did we know this, but we stopped it."

The new CDC report reopens an issue that many residents thought was resolved when the city spent $93 million to replace thousands of service lines. From 2004 to 2008, the District replaced water lines serving 17,600 homes, Hawkins said. Homeowners were responsible for the portion of the pipes on their property. In 14,800 of those homes, owners chose not to make any additional repairs.

"Partial lead service line replacements don't always work and in fact can cause sometimes more harm than good," Hawkins said. "We thought it was a good idea until the data started showed that it wasn't."

There is no blood lead level that is considered safe for children. The new CDC report found that children in homes where lead pipes had been partially replaced were three times as likely to have elevated lead levels than those whose homes never had lead pipes.

It is the process of unearthing and cutting the lead service line that is thought to cause the increased risk for lead exposure in homes that have undergone partial replacements. The risk decreases over time after the repair is done, Hawkins said. He added that D.C. Water conducts regular testing of households that have had partial lead service line replacements; none of the tests have raised concerns, he said.

"We encourage the notion of testing your water and seeing what's there," Hawkins said. "If it's only adults in the house, it's probably still a judgment call, but less health-imperative than if there's small children and pregnant women."

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