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Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 1 p.m. ET

Impact of High Lead Levels on D.C. Kids

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Marc Edwards
Lead Researcher; Civil Engineering Professor at Virginia Tech
Tuesday, January 27, 2009; 1:00 PM

A new study has found high levels of lead in D.C. children, due to high concentrations of the metal in the city's water supply from 2001 to 2004.

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Marc Edwards, one of the authors of the study, was online Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the findings, the potential risks and some possible courses of action for parents and city officials.

The transcript follows.

Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Teach, He's been studying lead levels in D.C. water since 2003. In 2004, Time magazine called him "The Plumbing Professor" for his research.

Full Story: High Lead Levels Found in D.C. Kids

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Washington, D.C.: Is the D.C. tap water safe to drink now? Would there be exceptions for individual with certain conditions (i.e., younger than 2, pregnant women, elderly, etc.)?

Marc Edwards: Hello everyone. Welcome to the afternoon chat on lead in water and its effect on public health , specifically the health of D.C. children. Today, we're joined by Virginia Tech researcher and civil engineer Marc Edwards, who is co-author of a startling study that finds a significant correlation between high leads level in DC tapwater from 2001 to 2004 and young children's elevated blood levels.

So lets get to the questions.

Here's Marc.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How aware were officials from 2001 to 2004 that high metal levels existed in the water? What could or should have been done about the high levels?

Marc Edwards: They were extremely aware. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority knew of the high lead levels in 2002, the EPA was alerted the first time in 2003.The D.C. Department of Health was even consulted in 2003 about helping WASA prepare some public education materials, which did not sound an alarm of any kind to the public about have severe and pervasive the lead concentrations had become throughout the city

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Alexandria, Va.: I am quite disturbed that EPA ordered DC and other cities to change from chlorine disinfection to chloramine without fully understanding the impacts on lead leaching into the drinking water. I am also disturbed that EPA Region 3 was a co-conspirator with DC WASA in masking the results once the high lead levels were discovered.

Marc Edwards: EPA did not order the cities to switch. There are options, some of which are more expensive and some less expensive. A decision was made by utilities to go with chloramine. No one really knew that this problem would occur, although in retrospect an EPA scientist Michael Schock had figured it out.

EPA did play a role in hiding the problem.

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Washington, D.C.: Do Brita or other water purifiers remove enough of the lead to make the water safe?

Marc Edwards: Yes, Brita type filters are not perfect, but they are highly effective.

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Columbia, Md.: Trend analyses can be informative, but can also yield spurious results. What intervening variables did you consider in your analysis that might have confounded the results? For example, the Mount Pleasant neighborhood has been an area with significant renovation and demolition during the time period in question. Do we know that lead-paint and dust were not the real causes of the higher blood lead levels among the children in the study?

Marc Edwards: The incidence of higher blood lead is in keeping with predictions of prior research. We are very confident in our results.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: What agency is in charge of receiving reports of possible lead exposure in children?

Marc Edwards: Currently the DC DOH and Deparment of Environment oversee this program. I have been impressed by the current employees.

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Washington, D.C.: Should people who live in this area be getting tested for lead poisoning? Do you think this affected adults?

Marc Edwards: We should continue to follow CDC and DC DOH recommendations in relation to testing.

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Bloomington, Minn.: What type of water filter do you recommend (if any) to keep families safe from lead in water? Have there been tests done with specific brands of water filters? What are the results?

Marc Edwards: Any filter certified by the National Sanitation Foundation for lead removal will work well.

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Washington, D.C.: What exactly do the authors recommend be done to control exposures from lead in water that is not already being done?

Marc Edwards: We need to do a much better job of finding taps with high lead. In a city like D.C. it might be that only 1 in 20, or 1 in 100 taps are of very serious concern. This means better testing.

We also need to be much more concerned about lead exposure occurring through mixing of infant formula from tap water. For example, never using hot water which might have high lead, or using bottled/filtered water for such purposes.

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New York: What can be done by the average resident to make sure the water is okay? I have heard advice to let the water run for awhile. Is that useful?

Marc Edwards: Yes. DC WASA still recommends that you flush the lines for at least 2 minutes if it has sat in the pipe for awhile (more than a few hours). I agree with that advice.

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Mount Pleasant resident: How did you collect the data for your study? My child has repeatedly tested below the limit of detection at various labs for lead. I was pregnant in 2002 and lived in Mt.P. at that time. Also when do you anticipate the EST to post your accepted article?

Marc Edwards: We used data from Children's National Medical Center, because it was of very high quality. For some reason the data used by CDC (obtained from DC DOH) was riddled with errors. The DC DOH "lost" thousands of blood lead measurements collected in 2003, a critical year of the study. Many other errors were encountered.

The CDC refused to answer my questions about problems with the data. They told me if I wanted to get answers, go to the DC OIG.

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Atlanta: Can you explain where the data came from regarding your study and why wasn't newer data used obtained from the Washington DC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program?

Marc Edwards: We used data through late 2007. The increased incidence of elevated blood lead is visibile in 2001-2003.

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We should continue to follow CDC and DC DOH recommendations in relation to testing. : And that is?

Marc Edwards: Follow the advice of your medical doctor. In many instances they will recommend testing of blood lead at age 1 and 2 years, unless high risks have been identified.

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20011: As you can see, I live in one of the high lead level zip codes (and our house did test at 150 ppm back when WASA did the testing a couple of years ago). I am currently pregnant. We installed a water filtering system, and thank god we did! Is there still any danger to drinking straight tap water for pregnant women or small children?

FYI - I asked the doctor to test me for lead when I found out I was pregnant. Luckily, the levels were normal. They thought I was nuts. Well, they're getting a copy of this article next time I go in. Thank you for bringing this to light, though it doesn't help the thousands of children that WASA and the EPA may have harmed by keeping this quiet. Frankly, it's criminal.

Marc Edwards: If I had young children in Washington D.C., or if my wife was pregnant, I would not recommend drinking of tap water if your home was built before about 1987. While the risk is low, there are still questions that need to be answered about the current safety of DC water.

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Arlington, Va.: This is a leading question. Here goes: Is Brita certified by the NSF for anything? Careful... the answer is no. Can Brita remove heavy metals? Again, the answer is no. Charcoal is good for chlorine but useless against heavy metals.

Marc Edwards: Brita type filters actually use ion-exchange (not just charcoal) that can remove a lot of lead. While we proved that they were not 100% effective in removing lead particles, they are still very effective. Any device certified by NSF for lead removal is very effective.

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Williamsport, Pa.: Why were you able to find this problem when official investigators could not? Should CDC and the others have been able to find this at the time?

Marc Edwards: It is my opinion they should have found this problem. Or at a minimum, put limitations on their conclusions. The sad reality is that DC DOH and WASA, the two agencies under intense public scrutiny in 2004, were given responsibity for determining the damage that was done. They gave data to CDC that was riddled with errors, as I mentioned earlier.

Other officials talked about "studies" that never existed. I feel strongly that scientific fraud and fabrication are involved.

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Arlington, Va.: The water from the DC Water and Sewer Authority also serves Arlington, Va. and Falls Church, Va. Did the study of elevated blood-lead levels look at the blood-lead levels of children in those areas? Is there any reason to believe that children in those areas would be affected differently than the D.C. children? Also, can you explain why lead exposure differed by zip code? Thank you.

Marc Edwards: We did not look at that question. However, the problems with high lead in Washington D.C., did not occur to the same extent at other nearby utilities.

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Reston, Va.: You can filter water to drink and cook with, but it's impractical to filter water for dishwashing, hand washing and bathing.

What accounts most for the lead levels - drinking or bathing?

Marc Edwards: Lead in water is only of concern if you consume it. Bathing or showing in water with modest lead contamination, has not been linked to higher incidence of elevated blood lead.

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Washington, D.C.: Marc -- thanks for the great work and shedding light on the poor analysis done by our public health leadership.

I'm wondering if you could discuss the policy implications of your findings a bit more. What additional requirements should the EPA be placing on water systems to help prevent this from happening again?

Marc Edwards: Actually, the sad reality is that existing regulations would have prevented this problem. Had DC WASA not illegally invalidated (i.e., hid) samples with high lead in 2001, and/or if they had notified the public, the serious harm could have been avoided.

The EPA has, and is, revising and improving the EPA Lead and Copper Rule. It still has significant holes in it. But the regulation in 2004 should have stopped this, if the law had been followed.

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Washington, D.C.: Professor Edwards: About how many young children had blood lead levels increased due to lead in the water? What were their ages?

Marc Edwards: The honest answer is that we will never know. One thing our study points out is that for children most severely impacted by lead in water (fetus, children under age 1), there is almost no data. This is because the existing blood lead monitoring program devised by CDC simply assumes that tap water is safe, or at least, that the water utility would tell people if there were problems. The existing program is designed to track problems with lead paint which are more serious for older children.

But when we looked at children of age less than 2.5 years of age, we found strong evidence that hundreds of children had their blood lead elevated by the water each year 2001-2004. A better estimate would require that we fix errors in the DC DOH database. The key point of our study is that trends in blood lead were consistent with predictions based on prior research and EPA models.

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Atlanta: Has anyone looked at the what is happening now? Are the levels dropping in the water and if so, what is the decline attributed to?

Marc Edwards: It is clear that water lead levels are lower now than in 2004. Unfortunately, DC residents Yanna Lambrinidou, Ralph Scott and Paul Scwartz recently discovered that DC WASA was telling consumers to flush their lines at least 10 minutes before collected samples for EPA compliance. This instruction "hides" lead in water. They recieved a letter from EPA HQ that this instruction is "inconsistent with the intent of the LCR." Hence, while lead in water is currently lower in D.C. now versus 2001-2004, I don't think anyone who truly understands this would say it is "safe."

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Waterloo, N.Y.: I live in a 173-year-old house in another jurisdiction which has chloraminated water. Besides the lead-leaching from old pipes, what other problems should concern me about chloramination?

Marc Edwards: Chloramine has many important advantages. For example, it decreases some taste and odor problems, and reduces the concentration of disinfection by-products (i.e.,potential carcinogens) versus free chlorine.

It is not that simple to say I use chloramine, and therefore I have more lead in my water. In Blacksburg we actually proved that the switch to chloramine reduced lead. It is highly dependent on the plumbing that is in place, the water, and the history of the system. Other issues with chloramine include higher levels of certain bacteria. But then again, other types of bacteria will be lower.

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Phoenix: Considering that Julius Caesar's engineer Vitruvius wrote that lead pipes should not be used for water, why are they used?

Also, lead poisoning is a known problem for kids due to lead paint, and to have even trace amounts in the water added to their burden, considering lead is not excreted well, would seemingly guarantee brain damage, not "could cause."

Why have a potential neurotoxin in your water mains just waiting for any number of events to occur and poison children?

Marc Edwards: Everyone agrees that we need to "get the lead out" of our water systems. The problem is that it is very expensive. And DC just went through the fiasco of "partial" pipe replacements, at a cost of $100 million, which did not accomplish any significant benefits.

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Atlanta: In your opinion, in order to make the water "safe" in DC, what would it take?

Marc Edwards: For starters, testing of the DC water using a protocol that meets the intent of the EPA lead and copper rule. DC WASA has used a protocol since 2005 that can "miss" lead problems.

Even so, the LCR cannot guarantee that water in your home is safe. It is a shared responsibility. Ultimately you are responsible for testing and/or treating your own water.

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Washington, D.C. : A personal question - if you lived in one of the "high risk" neighborhoods identified, even now that the problem has been supposedly remedied, would you drink bottled water? Purified water? What precautions would you take?

Thanks for doing this chat.

Marc Edwards: If I lived in D.C., and I lived in a home built before 1987, I would not allow my children (younger than age 6) to drink unfiltered tap water (or use it for cooked food or drinks).

If you have allowed your young children to drink DC water, the chance of significant problems is very small, but it is not non-existent. We do know that even in very recent testing, a significant percentage of children in D.C. with elevated blood lead have water that tests above 15 ppb. That does not "prove" that water is the major source. But it is still a problem that should concern you.

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30017: "Even so, the LCR cannot guarantee that water in your home is safe. It is a shared responsibility. Ultimately you are responsible for testing and/or treating your own water."

How does one do this??

Marc Edwards: You can order test kits over the internet. Or you can call a local lab to have them come by and test the water. Make sure it sits stagnant in the pipes for at least 6 hours before collecting the water. And test every tap that your child uses for drinking.

Or, you can use bottled water for cooking or drinking, or buy a filter certified by NSF to remove lead.

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Silver Spring, Md.: For those of us with small kids or pregnant woman in our households or neighborhood, what is the best way to test our water for lead? Would you recommend any of the water testing kits offered on the Internet?

The producer of one lead test kit says it has links to an institute at the University of North Carolina (www.leadtesting.org) but other kits on Amazon, etc. claim test for many other pollutants.

Thank you!

Marc Edwards: I strongly endorse the North Carolina testing facility as low cost and very reliable.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Are there age or body weight conditions over which high metal levels in water will not cause damage to a child?

Marc Edwards: There is no "safe" level of lead in water. However, the younger the child, the greater the potential harm that lead can do.

That is all I have time for.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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