Officials try to ease alarm about lead in D.C. water

By Tim Craig and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 9:38 PM

The risk of lead exposure in the District's water supply is "fairly minimal," according to the co-author of a report on previous contamination in the city. And the head of the city's water authority said Thursday that "the vast majority" of homes are safe.

Thomas Sinks, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he thinks there has been "proper corrosion control" by D.C.Water officials over the past four years.

George S. Hawkins, general manager of the water authority, said recent monitoring shows lead levels in city water meet standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. "The system is getting better. Things are improving," he said. "There is no crisis."

Hawkins stopped short of giving blanket assurances that the water in every home is lead-free, and he reiterated that households with pregnant women and children should have their water tested if they doubt its safety.

After a Washington Post story on the CDC report on Wednesday, D.C. Water and CDC officials sought to reassure city residents that the drinking water is safe.

On Wednesday, the CDC published results of an nine-year study of the city's water supply confirming that children living in the District were exposed to high levels of lead after an ill-founded attempt to prevent the water from being contaminated.

From 2004 to 2008, the District replaced lead pipes in public right of ways, but it was homeowners' responsibility to authorize and pay for the work on private property. According to city records, there have been about 15,000 so-called partial pipe replacements. But in late 2008, on advice from CDC and EPA officials, D.C. Water suspended the program.

Hawkins said city officials discovered that partial pipe replacements caused "short-term" spikes in the lead levels at the homes but that the problem subsided "within a few months."

"What we discovered is partials just did not work," Hawkins said. "But is there a risk from a project done a year ago? The most likely answer to the question is no."

CDC officials said in an interview Thursday that partial pipe replacements may not have effectively reduced lead levels and that they do not know whether partial replacements made the problem worse.

On Thursday, residents jammed phone lines at D.C. Water seeking information about their pipes and asking the agency to test their tap water. There was also an increase in calls to bottle water delivery service.

Elisabeth Kvernen, a Web designer who is seven months pregnant, said that she was uncertain about the status of the pipes in the Capitol Hill apartment building where she lives and that she planned to follow up with her landlord.

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