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.

She quickly contacted D.C. Water and learned that she could not test the tap in her unit because it requires shutting off the water in the building. Until she gets more answers, Kvernen said she plans to be more diligent about using her pitcher-filter system.

"It's a matter of not knowing. I'd just like to know," she said.

Hawkins said residents can call D.C. Water at 202-354-3600 for information on how to obtain test kits or find out whether lead pipes at their homes had been completely or partially replaced.

Pierre Erville, head of the Lead and Healthy Housing Division, said residents with lead service lines, whether partially replaced or intact, are at an increased risk of lead exposure. He advises residents with lead lines to have their water tested, use water filters and take any children younger than 6 who live in the house to a doctor for a blood level test.

CDC officials stressed that the District appears to be addressing their concerns.

"We believe the risk is fairly minimal today," Sinks said.

According to data supplied by D.C. Water, more than 90 percent of District houses have fewer than 7 parts per billion of lead, far below the 15 parts per billion that the EPA deems unacceptable.

To comply with federal guidelines, D.C. Water tests at least 100 "high-risk" properties every six months for lead levels, according to Rich Giani, the supervisor for water quality at D.C. Water.

Between the start of 2009 and June of this year, 307 properties were tested. About 30 percent of the tests were done at residences that had partial pipe replacements, Giani said. Only 7 tests found unacceptable levels of lead. In all but one of those cases, the high levels can be attributed to galvanized-steel plumbing, D.C. Water officials said.

In another sign that the problem is receding, the number and proportion of children younger than 6 with high blood lead levels has been steadily decreasing.

According to statistics provided by the city's Department of the Environment, 236 of more than 20,000 children screened in 2004 had elevated blood lead levels. Last year, more than 16,000 children were screened, and 80 were found to have high blood lead levels.

A Capitol Hill father is pressing ahead with a lawsuit on behalf of his twin sons, contending that their health problems could be connected to high levels of lead in the city's water from 2001 to 2004.

Katherine Leong, one of the attorneys for the father, John Parkhurst, said: "We still remain concerned about the health of the children in D.C."

She questioned Hawkins's assertion that ongoing monitoring by the agency suggests there is not a crisis. "They issued the same statement when the lead was elevated in D.C.," Leong said. "I'm a little skeptical."

Staff writers Carol Morello and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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