Sunday, March 8, 2009

"All Ok": WASA's Hazardous Public Messages

There is a strange thing about WASA's public messages on lead in our drinking water. Often completely divorced from reality, these messages are dumped on us in reassuring sound bites and give a disincentive to take simple actions that would protect fetuses, infants, and young children from exposure to lead at the tap. To many of our leaders and to WASA's Board of Directors, WASA's confident messages that the city's water is unequivocally lead-safe seem to have a comforting effect, even when WASA's own data (and that from independent sources) show just the opposite.

Here are some examples of the hazardous public messages to which we have been subjected in the past:
  • In June 2003, while in the middle of an unprecedented lead-in-water contamination, the cover page of WASA's 2002 Water Quality Report to customers declared, "Your Drinking Water is Safe" (WASA has since removed this page of the report from their website). The truth is that in October 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had officially deemed WASA in exceedance of the federal Lead Action Level. This means that the tap water in over 10% of DC homes monitored by WASA dispensed more than 15 parts per billion lead. In actuality, WASA's data showed that 49% of homes had a lead-in-water problem. This exceedance had triggered public education, lead pipe replacement, and corrosion control requirements that are built into federal law to protect public health from lead-in-water hazards (see Eric H. Holder, Jr. Report, 2004, p. 76).
  • In February 2004, just weeks after the Washington Post broke the story about excessively high levels of lead at the tap throughout the District, WASA declared that drinking water at DC public schools had "extremely low levels of lead" -- only 7 of 154 schools had a problem. Soon after, it was discovered that WASA had flushed school taps for 10 minutes immediately before collecting samples, a practice that goes against EPA sampling standards, and that WASA later bragged was a good protective measure that residents could use to eliminate 95% of the lead at their tap. In April 2004, WASA conceded to public pressure and went back to test schools again. This time, 29 of 137 schools had a problem. Several taps dispensed lead concentrations that exceeded EPA's Lead Action Level of 15 parts per billion by hundreds and thousands of times. Free blood lead testing was offered only to students at those 29 schools. The message to the public was that children in other schools were safe. What was discovered years later was that WASA's second round of tests included the removal of aerators and flushing all schools for 10 minutes the night before sampling. Both of these actions hide lead at the tap. Testing in 2006-2007 showed some "hazardous waste" levels of lead in school water, 3/4 of schools with lead-at-the-tap problems, and several schools with more than 60% of the sampled taps dispensing over 15 parts per billion lead. Always at least a year or two behind WASA's innovations to hide lead-in-water problems, it took until 2006 before EPA essentially banned aerator removal, and until 2008 to determine that flushing on the eve of sampling for lead goes against the intent of federal regulations. In the end, we will never know how many DC children were needlessly exposed to lead in school drinking water between 2001 and 2007, when lead filters were finally installed system-wide as part of Mayor Fenty's school Safe Water Initiative.
  • In January 2008, WASA initiated a series of community meetings to try and begin reneging on their 2004 pledge to replace quickly all the lead service lines they own in the city. In their factsheet, and at their first public presentation of the issue in Anacostia, WASA declared that the partial lead service line replacements they had conducted in over 9,000 DC homes between 2004 and 2007 had shown "only small decreases in lead levels at the tap." What WASA failed to mention was that their data actually showed lead-in-water spikes for weeks and months after partial replacement in many homes. As shown in the video below, participants at the Anacostia meeting who had obtained WASA's data previously and knew about the spikes demanded answers. After intense questioning, WASA finally admitted that the spikes can last "for weeks" but could not recall how severe they are. Subsequently, DC Council member Jim Graham ordered WASA to conduct testing that would shed light on the long-term duration of post-partial-replacement spikes. In July 2008, WASA reported to Council member Graham that all was good: they tested homes that had their lead pipe partially replaced in 2006 and confirmed that the lead-in-water spikes following partial replacement were only a "short-term occurrence." In truth, 13% of the homes WASA tested continued to have lead-in-water problems in 2008 (i.e., they had a 1st and/or 2nd draw lead level over 15 parts per billion). This percentage is conservative, because in this testing round WASA once again instructed all homeowners to flush their taps for 10 minutes on the eve of sampling.
Today we know that despite WASA's repeated reassurances that our water is safe, in 2001-2003 hundreds, if not thousands, of DC infants and toddlers experienced elevated blood lead levels as a result of lead-contaminated drinking water. Moreover, in the last 3 years, children with elevated blood lead levels were identified in homes with a recent partial lead service line replacement.

WASA's public messages about lead in our water can be hazardous to our health. Unfortunately, correcting these messages, or erasing the misperceptions is extremely difficult. Because WASA rarely responds to Freedom of Information Act requests, it often takes years to discover what unethical manipulations went behind their latest "all ok" message.


Video excerpt: 1/30/08 "public education" meeting in Anacostia where WASA officials presented the utility's lead pipe replacement program. At this meeting, WASA was unprepared to discuss with the public the lead-in-water spikes that, according to WASA's own data, often follow partial lead pipe replacement for an undetermined duration. To date, WASA has done a partial lead pipe replacement in over 9,000 DC homes.

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