Saturday, January 31, 2009

WASA's Damage Control: New Face, Old Rhetoric

Isn't it deliciously ironic that exactly 5 years after District residents found out about WASA's two and a half year cover-up of the historically unprecedented contamination of our water, our water utility chose to respond to this week's news about the harm done to hundreds of infants and children with the same old recycled and misleading rhetoric that they have been using since 2001?

In "Our Pledge to Keep the District's Water Safe" (Letter to the Editor, Washington Post, 2/1/09), William M. Walker, President and Chief Executive Officer of two real estate financial service firms in Bethesda, MD, and the newest member -- and Chair -- of the WASA Board of Directors, gave us the following assurance:

"What people should know first and foremost is that DC drinking water is safe and meets or exceeds all federal safety standards."

The desire to comfort an angered public, and cast doubt on the merits of a study that just exposed the serious harm to which your agency's actions led is understandable. But acting on this desire is not, when the facts contradict your assurances. Here are some points, Mr. Walker, you probably ought to have considered before raising your wing to fold us back into WASA's deceptive, soporific nest:
  1. Even though the District no longer faces the extreme lead-in-water problem of 2001-2004, serious questions remain about lead at the tap in our city. Because of these questions, in Feb. 2008, Councilmember Jim Graham proposed that DC government conduct independent testing to determine the quality of our water vis-a-vis lead. This testing has still not begun.
  2. DC government data in 2007-2008 show that water continues to be either the sole or a contributing lead source for some DC children with elevated blood lead levels. If the parents of these children were to visit you, Mr. Walker, would you be able to look at them in the eye and repeat the assurance you wrote in your letter to the Washington Post?
WASA has never proactively alerted the public about lead-in-water problems. Since 2001, such problems have been uncovered either by the media or by independent investigators. During the height of the contamination (in 2001-2003), the agency kept proclaiming that "Your Drinking Water is Safe" in various public education documents. But even after the cover up was made public, and residents finally began protecting themselves from continued exposure to lead at the tap, former Chair of WASA's Board of Directors Mr. Glen Gerstel emphasized under oath that the city's water was safe (see video clips below).

Given your agency's history of false and misleading reassurances, Mr. Walker, what weight do you expect DC residents to give to your comforting, but unsubstantiated, words?

By now, we all need to know that the question "Is DC's water safe to drink?" is by definition misleading. Lead-in-water levels in individual homes depend on many factors, including service line material, solder and fixture material, neighborhood, water use patterns, and time of year. At any given time, one home's (or neighborhood's) water might be safe to drink, while another home's (or neighborhood's) might not. Moreover, the federal water standards you mention in your letter, Mr. Walker, allow for 10% of homes to dispense high lead at the tap. Even when a water utility complies with federal lead safety standards -- and there are serious questions about whether WASA really does -- a significant number of residents might still be exposed to lead-contaminated water.

While we trust that the independent experts you have consulted will be able to explain to the WASA Board the discrepancies between the CDC 2004 paper -- which found no relationship between elevated water lead levels and blood lead levels, and the Edwards et al. 2009 paper -- which found that hundreds of infants and toddlers were harmed as a direct result of the contamination, we will close with some publicized quotes about these two studies:

Statements about the CDC study:

"...a quick and sloppy study to address public health concerns," "...if this article were submitted to a journal to 'prove' that lead in water wasn't an important source, it would have been rejected."
Bruce Lanphear, pediatric epidemiologist and internationally renowned researcher on the effects of lead on children (quoted in Salon, 11/27/06).

"The CDC's director of lead poisoning prevention, Mary Jean Brown, said in a prepared statement yesterday that it was unfortunate that the CDC study was repeatedly cited by government officials as proof of no problem. 'It may have been helpful to more clearly state and explain the limitations of CDC's involvement, particularly the limitations of the health consultation,' she said. 'In retrospect, some people have misinterpreted the intent and scope of the health consultation, including characterizing it as a scientific study, which it clearly was not.'" (quoted in the Washington Post, 1/28/09).

"If people are walking away from this [CDC study] and saying there's no problem with drinking water, I don't know how to respond to that." "We were under some constraints . . . working as quickly as we could."
Mary Jean Brown, Director of Lead Poisoning Prevention, CDC (quoted in the Washington Post, 1/27/09).

Statements about the Edwards et al. study:

“This is the first paper about the D.C. lead crisis to get it right. The authors really show quite convincingly that the lead in the drinking water resulted in lead poisoning in some children.”
Michael Shannon, pediatrician, Harvard Medical School, expert in childhood lead poisoning (quoted in Lead in DC's Drinking Water blog, 1/27/09).

"'...on average, these children experienced elevations in lead exposure that are indicative of harm. So on average we might expect to see an increased risk in behavior problems — such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or conduct disorders — and decrements in IQ.' How big an IQ drop might a three-year exposure to elevated concentrations of waterborne lead cause? 'Our best estimate is somewhere between 4 and 7 IQ points' if the lead levels in a child rose from nondetectable to 10 µg/dl.' [...] So on a population basis [...] 'the impact would be quite substantial, even though for any given child the change might appear subtle.' [...] Failing to protect young children from exposure to lead-tainted drinking water 'is one more crime against children.'"
Bruce Lanphear, pediatric epidemiologist and internationally renowned researcher on the effects of lead on children (quoted in ScienceNews blog, 1/27/09).

Written with input from Paul Schwartz, Clean Water Action

Video 1: Mr. Gerstel's reassuring testimony 5 days after the Washington Post exposed the agency's two and a half year cover up.
Video 2: Former Councilmember Carol Schwartz's reaction to Mr. Gerstel.

video video

5 Year Anniversary

After five years of official assurances that the city’s 2001-2004 lead-in-water crisis did not cause significant health harm, we now learn that hundreds, if not thousands, of infants and toddlers experienced blood lead levels above the Centers for Disease Control “level of concern,” as a result of the contamination. Those children are at risk of irreversible IQ loss, developmental delays, and behavioral problems.

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the Washington Post front page article informing District residents about a citywide contamination of our drinking water with lead. This article reported that in the summer of 2003, 4,075 of 6,118 homes tested dispensed high levels of lead at the tap. In over 2,000 of those homes, lead concentrations exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" of 15 parts per billion by three times or more. Some water lead measurements were in the hundreds and even thousands parts per billion.

WASA had known about a lead-in-water problem since mid-2001, but did not begin notifying homeowners until November 2003. Lynette Stokes, MD, who oversaw the DC Department of Health lead screening program, told the Washington Post that lead dust and paint posed “a far greater risk” than contaminated water. Dr. Stokes’ statement did not take into account the following:

  • EPA’s estimate that in areas with lead-contaminated water like DC, “the total drinking water contribution to overall lead levels may range from as little as 5 percent to more than 50 percent of children’s total lead exposure. Infants dependent on formula may receive more than 85 percent of their lead from drinking water" (Federal Register, Vol. 56, No. 110, June 7, 1991, p. 26470). This statement was published at a time when lead sources other than water were more prevalent than they are now.

  • Numerous scientific studies showing that for formula-fed infants and young children contaminated drinking water can be a potent pathway of exposure to lead (see references in Edwards et al. 2009 study)

  • The concentrations of lead in DC’s drinking water were unprecedented in modern US history.