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Lead in water fosters worry in Washington

By Frank James
Washington Bureau

April 12, 2004

WASHINGTON -- When Bill Wright and Katherine Raphaelson renovated the kitchen of their red-brick home soon after buying it in 2002, they were so concerned their young son could be exposed to toxic lead paint dust that Raphaelson and the boy spent weeks elsewhere.

Mother and son lived for a time in a Washington hotel and visited her parents in Chicago, all to avoid any dangerous debris stirred up by the work on the circa-1925 house.

So like thousands of other parents in the nation's capital, they were shocked to learn recently that despite the great lengths they went to, their children still were exposed to worrisome lead levels through drinking tap water.

In what some are calling a major--and avoidable--public health crisis, thousands of homes and schools in the Washington area have been found to have water with exceedingly high lead levels.

For Wright and Raphaelson, their worries were heightened when they realized that the 41-year-old Raphaelson drank the contaminated water during her second pregnancy, after they moved into the house in Cleveland Park, one of Washington's toniest neighborhoods.

They now have two children: William, 3, and Annie Caroline, 6 months.

"I was very alarmed" after learning of the problem, said Wright, 53, an international-development expert.

"We were being extremely cautious," he said as he sat in his living room holding his daughter. "Then to find out that this problem with the water was here and that the children and Katherine, when she was pregnant, had been exposed to that."

For residents such as Wright, distrust of the local water authority adds to their concern. Many believe the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority did not inform residents of the problem in a timely manner. On April 1, the Environmental Protection Agency said the water authority violated federal law by failing to properly notify residents. At least one resident has filed a lawsuit.

Now those who can afford it are cooking, mixing baby formula and brushing their teeth with bottled or filtered water.

Local health officials have recommended that children younger than 6 and women who are pregnant or nursing avoid drinking tap water. Hundreds of small children have had blood drawn for testing.

Not just the District of Columbia is affected. Some schools and homes in the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs also have high lead levels.

The problem is thought to be linked to old lead service lines that carry water into homes and businesses. But there is an element of mystery, too, because some homes without lead service lines are showing high levels of the toxic substance.

A worry for other cities

While the Washington metropolitan area is the epicenter of the current concerns, experts say significant lead contamination also is likely in other cities with older housing stock.

"It is probably a signal that similar problems may exist in many other systems nationwide," Ellen Silbergeld, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University, recently told the House Government Reform Committee.

The EPA's rules on lead are too lax generally and not adequately enforced, experts say. And in many places, water monitoring is not as exacting as it should be, critics charge.

Some experts say particular mistakes were made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which gathers and treats Potomac River water for drinking, and the local water authority, which distributes it.

Some experts had recommended that the water authority add phosphate to the water, as Chicago does, to keep lead from leaching into it from lead pipes that once were the standard. (Copper is largely used now.) That has kept Chicago's water in compliance, according to officials with the city's Water Management Department.

But according to local news reports, Washington's water officials declined to add phosphate because it would have cost $870,000 annually.

Risk to brain development

The issue has stirred widespread anxiety in Washington because it has long been known that lead can harm brain development in children.

Recent studies indicate that lead also is dangerous to adults. The substance has been implicated in strokes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer, Silbergeld said.

"People are in a state of fear, uncertainty, confusion, and they're angry and rightfully so," said Melody Webb, a mother of two young children and a Harvard University Law School graduate who started a Web site to provide information for parents about the water problem.

City residents, local political officials and members of Congress were incensed after it became known that the water authority and the EPA seemingly knew much more about the problem than they initially told the public.

The water authority saw high lead levels during a small sampling of houses in 2002, and it greatly expanded its testing after that. It definitively knew in December 2003 that it had a huge problem, said Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

But the authority didn't shout the results from the rooftops, as many critics say it should have. Indeed, most residents' first notice of the extent of the problem was a report in The Washington Post in late January.

"The mayor shares the anger and frustration of the residents of the city that he had to learn of this problem from a Washington Post story," said Tony Bullock, press secretary to D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. "We're pretty miffed."

Water agency defends actions

The water authority's chairman, Glenn Gerstell, said in congressional testimony that the agency "did not sit on any information."

A local activist had obtained water test results for more than 6,000 homes and passed them to the Post.

"The Water and Sewer Authority's reaction was to have their attorneys call and threaten me with litigation," said Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch, a watchdog group.

More than two-thirds of the 6,000-plus houses tested had lead levels that exceeded the 15-parts-per-billion level at which the EPA requires a water authority to take action, the Post reported. The lead level at Wright and Raphaelson's home tested as high as 83 parts per billion.

Some critics have said the water authority's initial advice--that consumers should run their water for a minute to flush lead from their pipes--might actually have increased the amount of lead they ingested.

Many experts believe the lead levels in Washington's water are linked to corrosion caused by the addition in 2000 of the disinfectant chloramine. Another water chemistry change is being considered to try to solve the problem.

The other solution, replacing lead lines to at least 23,000 homes thought to have them, could cost $15,000 per home.

For Wright and Raphaelson, the situation has caused pangs of guilt.

"When we moved down [from Boston] for Bill's job, it was a big decision," Raphaelson said. "And there've been moments when Bill has said, `I regret bringing our family down here and putting them at risk.'"

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