Lead on tap

An alarming return of lead in drinking water is being ignored by the EPA and municipal officials.

Published November 27, 2006 1:04PM (EST)

In the spring of 2003, home inspectors from the District of Columbia's Department of Health came to Andy and Shelli Bressler's century-old house in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood, looking for lead. Like 300,000 young children in the U.S. each year, the Bresslers' 2-year-old twins had elevated lead in their blood, which their doctor picked up during a routine checkup. Lead affects neurological development in children, and twins Adam and Casey had taken a long time to reach milestones such as walking and talking.

The inspectors came in search of the usual suspects of childhood lead poisoning -- paint chips, dust and soil. After several hours of searching, they found some paint, but it was in good condition and the boys hadn't gone near it. "The inspectors agreed that the paint didn't seem to be the problem, so we asked about the water," says Andy Bressler, who had heard that D.C.'s water had a lead problem in the past. "They told us that the D.C. water was fine."

In the end, the inspectors blamed the paint, and the Bresslers had it removed. But six months later the boys' blood lead levels were still too high, according to their doctor. Then, in January 2004, Bressler read in the Washington Post that thousands of homes in D.C. had high lead in their drinking water. The problem constituted one of the worst episodes of water contamination in U.S. history and signaled a potential crisis in metropolitan areas across the country. In Washington, tens of thousands of people unwittingly drank tap water contaminated with lead for several years; in a few cases, the tap water contained enough lead to be classified as a hazardous waste. When tests confirmed that their tap water contained high lead levels, Bressler says, "we immediately stopped drinking and cooking with tap water. Finally, the boys' lead levels came down."

To this day, officials involved in the D.C. crisis contend that no one was significantly harmed by D.C.'s lead problem. But Salon has recently learned that one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the "no harm" conclusion has been falsely represented. During the crisis, the city's Water and Sewer Authority and Health Department sent inspectors to the homes of children with elevated blood lead to look for the source. At a 2004 congressional hearing investigating the causes of the exposure, D.C. water authority general manager Jerry Johnson testified that in every case the assessments showed that water was not the source of the child's lead exposure.

But a recent examination of the assessment reports reveals that water is the sole source of the blood poisoning in some homes and that assessors found high levels of lead in tap water in many other homes. The reports were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards, a leading authority on water corrosion, who first called attention to D.C.'s lead problem. Since then, Edwards has been conducting his own investigation of the crisis and has established a clear connection between lead-contaminated water and elevated blood lead levels in some D.C. children. "The assertion that no one was harmed in D.C. contradicts decades of scientific research on dangers of lead in drinking water," he says.

Numerous studies confirm that very low levels of lead in kids' blood are linked to short attention spans and reading problems. In adults, low levels are linked to high blood pressure and an increased risk of death from heart disease and stroke.

All of the agencies involved in the lead crisis -- D.C.'s water authority, the city's Health Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- had reasons to downplay the crisis. Every agency blundered by first ignoring the problem. When it got too big to hide, they tried to cover up their mistakes by blaming every case of lead poisoning on paint, a widely recognized hazard of lead exposure that predominantly affects children in poorly maintained low-income rental housing. But water as a source of lead is more insidious and pervasive. This summer, dangerous levels of lead in drinking water popped up in Maine; and Providence, R.I., and Bristol, Conn., joined the ranks of Boston, Lansing, Mich., and Portland, Ore., which have had long-standing problems with lead in tap water.

"Public health experts are trying to comfort people who are anxious without having to directly address the problem of lead in water," says pediatrician Bruce Lanphear, director of the Cincinnati Children's Environmental Health Center and one of the country's foremost researchers on the effects of lead exposure on children. "They are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem."

The problem began when the D.C. water authority made a seemingly innocuous water treatment change to comply with a new EPA regulation. The same regulation has prompted cities nationwide to change their water treatment methods, often with lead-laden consequences.

In 2000, just months before the Bressler twins were born, the Water and Sewer Authority stopped using chlorine to disinfect the pipes that supply the city's water and switched over to chloramines, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia. WASA did this to comply with the EPA's new "Disinfection Byproducts Rule." Disinfection byproducts, which are suspected to cause a range of problems including bladder cancer and miscarriages, form when chlorine reacts with dissolved organic matter in water.

The switch unexpectedly and rapidly started leaching lead into the water from lead pipes, solder and brass plumbing. A few weeks after the switch, technicians saw high lead levels in water samples required by law, but discounted them. "D.C. officials said and continue to say that there was no public health threat from the lead contamination," says Eric Olson, director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "Amazingly they had evidence that children were harmed in some cases and ignored it."

The EPA not only knew about many of these problems but also directly oversaw and approved many of the water utility's actions, according to an investigation by former U.S. deputy attorney general Eric Holder Jr. in 2004. When the Post publicized the bad news, the EPA was on the defensive, as its regulation had inadvertently caused the problem, and its officials had approved many of the WASA actions that hid the danger from the public.

Rick Rogers, who supervised the EPA's efforts in Washington, tells Salon the agency wasn't involved in a coverup. The problem started small, he says, and the EPA only realized how massive it was a few months before the public knew. "At first we didn't think it was a big problem and WASA for the most part complied with the rules," he says. As for possible health effects, "We're not the experts; we just followed what the health people told us."

Lead is almost never present in when water leaves a treatment plant. Instead the water picks up lead from corrosion of lead pipes in old water systems, lead solder that plumbers used until the mid-1980s, or faucets and other fixtures that can contain up to 8 percent lead. The EPA's long-standing lead regulation is designed only to indicate whether anticorrosion methods are working, not to figure out if drinking water is lead-free. A water utility could meet all of the EPA's corrosion requirements even if 9 percent of homes served had hazardous levels of lead in their water.

When at least 10 percent of homes have elevated lead in their water, the water authority is required to inform the public about the problem. But a recent EPA survey determined that 40 percent of water utilities did not conduct the required public education activities. This means that people were not given enough information to reduce their exposure to lead from drinking water.

Edwards has uncovered other irregularities in how public agencies handled the D.C. lead case. In 21 of the 93 reports, assessors found no problems with paint, dust or soil lead levels. In two cases, water was the only obvious source; in one instance, a child attended an elementary school where water samples contained lead levels almost 500 times higher than the EPA's target. Despite knowing about the water problem, in 25 cases the assessors did not take samples from a tap. When they did sample the water they often flouted standard sampling procedures. The assessors almost certainly would have found more lead if they'd followed standard protocols, says Edwards.

Marie Sansone, a senior administrator at the D.C. Health Department, says that Lynette Stokes, the official who directly oversaw the department's response to the lead problem, no longer works for the department. She may have had other information about the children or may have made a mistake, adds Sansone, who says that the Health Department is currently investigating the matter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention got involved in the D.C. lead problem when the D.C. Health Department asked for help during the peak of public outrage. The only published scientific report about the crisis is a collaboration between the CDC and Health Department workers. This report, described by lead expert Lanphere as "a quick and sloppy study to address public health concerns," is routinely cited as evidence that no one had been harmed. But "if this article were submitted to a journal to 'prove' that lead in water wasn't an important source, it would have been rejected," Lanphere says.

But the CDC will not be evaluating the newly revealed home inspection reports, according to a spokesperson, who says that apparent discrepancies between public statements about the assessments and the assessments themselves are none of the CDC's business.

The NRDC's Olson wants to know whose business it is. He is calling for an independent investigation. "Years after the fact, we find out that public officials withheld public health data," he says. "Major public health issues cannot be based on secret information." Any thorough investigation should be independent, he continues, and "not just for D.C., but for other communities where lead is a problem."

Greenville, N.C., is just such a community. In March 2004, John Morrow, director of public health in Pitt County, which encompasses Greenville, wanted to find the source of lead in a blood-poisoned infant, 1-year-old Conner Jackson. Inspectors had looked all over Jackson's house but failed to find a source. As the child's blood lead climbed higher, Morrow, who had heard about the D.C. lead crisis, started to wonder if water could be the source of Conner's blood poisoning. Conner's health was good, but Morrow wanted to head off any problems in the future.

Morrow turned for advice to experts in Washington. He found materials on the Web from Tee Guidotti, director of occupational medicine and toxicology at George Washington University and the Washington water utility's paid advisor on lead. Information from Guidotti downplayed the role of water. "These all indicated to me that drinking water lead and blood lead are not related," says Morrow.

It wasn't until 11 months later, in February 2005, when Conner's mom, Laura Jackson, showed Morrow a letter from the Greenville water company saying that her lead levels were high, that water was even considered as a possible source. When inspectors did sample the water, they found it contained an unsafe amount of lead. Ironically, Conner's blood lead stayed high after he stopped drinking the water.

It now appears that food cooked in the water had become laced with minute particles of lead solder. Tests conducted on pasta cooked in the water revealed that a single serving had more lead than a dime-size chip of lead paint. Over a year after Connor's problem was identified, the Jacksons finally stopped using the contaminated tap water for cooking and Connor's blood lead finally started to come down.

Just as it did in D.C., the lead from solder got into the Jacksons' tap water because the local water utility switched water treatment to comply with the EPA's Disinfection Byproducts Rule. This caused the water to attack solder in the Jacksons' home. Greenville water treatment plant manager Barrett Lasater says that although the EPA's new rule had indirectly caused the lead problem, he had to solve it on his own. "We made these changes to reduce disinfection byproducts. We had no idea they would affect lead," he says.

Morrow, the public health official, was also surprised by the experience. "It was a new education to me to find out that what I thought about lead in drinking water wasn't the case," he told Environmental Science and Technology magazine. "Particles of lead are the real issue. They are just like chips of paint and they can get into the water and elevate blood lead levels," he added.

Following the Greenville experience, North Carolina now requires health inspectors to sample tap water when they look for lead. Thanks to this common-sense change, public health officials in Durham linked a child's lead poisoning to drinking water just a month after his problem was identified. An inspection of the child's house found unsafe levels in tap water and no other source in his mother's apartment, according to Durham County health officer Marc Meyer. Further testing found elevated lead in dozens of Durham homes. Drinking fountains at eight schools were disconnected when sampling found high lead there.

An apparently minor difference in Meyer's sampling procedures compared with those of the water authority may explain how the city water passed the compliance monitoring and yet was responsible for the child's lead poisoning. The faucet that had the high lead values had an aerator or faucet screen that was clogged with lead solder particles. When water came out of the tap, some of these small particles got into the water. Meyer was able to pick this up because the Health Department took samples with the aerator on.

"We kept the aerator on because we wanted to get a real-world sample that reflects what people are drinking," says Meyer. But the water company took the aerator off when it sampled for EPA compliance testing. Salon's inquiries to other water companies reveal that taking the aerator off before sampling water is not uncommon. The aerators were taken off for water sampling in the D.C. school system during that city's crisis and water samples have been collected in Providence, R.I., and Boston with the aerator off.

Lead solder, banned in the mid-1980s, is generally considered a widespread but minor source of lead in drinking water. Over time, scientists have believed, the solder gets coated with mineral films that form a barrier between the water and the solder. But evidence from Durham, Greenville, Washington and other places shows this assumption to be false.

Virginia Tech's Edwards has found chunks of lead solder in the screens at the end of faucets in all these places in the wake of a change in water treatment. When these particles get trapped behind a faucet screen, they are constant sources of high lead at the tap because flowing water grinds them against the faucet screen and scrapes off bits of the particles, just like carrots on a grater. Last month, the EPA started advising water companies to keep the aerator on when they sample tap water for lead. Some water companies are also advising customers to check and clean their faucet screens.

Morrow says his firsthand experience of water as a source of lead worries him. "I am concerned that infants may be the ones who would most likely be affected by particulate lead from a water source and we as a nation are not doing a good job of screening these infants to identify if the problem even exists," he says.

Edwards says that public health officials will continue to ignore the risk of lead in water, and that the CDC and the EPA will downplay the risk. But as the case in Washington, D.C., proved, the misinformation can no longer be ignored. "Now that we know the agencies were wrong and the science was right, we can stop debating whether lead in water is a real public health concern, and start determining how to better detect and mitigate the hazard," he says.

By Rebecca Renner

Rebecca Renner writes about the environmental sciences from Williamsport, Pa.

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