Before Flint: D.C.’s drinking water crisis was even worse

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 1 of a special report examining D.C.’s drinking water. 

WASHINGTON — Lessons learned the hard way in the aftermath of D.C.’s 2004 water crisis are benefiting residents in Flint, Michigan, who have been forced to deal with lead in their drinking water.

“People don’t realize this — the extent of the problem in D.C. was about 20 to 30 times larger than Flint,” says Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards, who has been instrumental in researching the immediate and long-term effects of lead in water in both the District of Columbia and Flint. “There was more lead poisoning, more exposure of people.”

Lead is a toxic metal that, when ingested through paint, water, and soil, can cause brain damage, behavioral problems and developmental problems.

In 2004, the Washington Post reported that a change in water treatment chemicals at the federally operated Washington Aqueduct in 2000 had inadvertently triggered the absorption of lead from the District’s aging lead service lines and lead pipes in older homes.

Although testing by Washington’s Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), which changed its name to DC Water in 2010, revealed increased lead levels in 2000, the information was not widely disseminated until the Post’s investigative report.

“People went crazy because they realized their families had been exposed to high lead without really knowing about it,” Edwards said.

“Ironically, it wasn’t a cost-saving matter like we’ve seen alleged in Flint. This was a result of a protective rule for health coming out of the Environmental Protection Agency, called the ‘disinfectant byproduct rule,'” said George Hawkins, CEO and general manager of DC Water, who joined the agency in 2009.

In 2000, Hawkins said, the Washington Aqueduct, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the water treatment system for D.C., “was changing from chlorine to chloramine, which is a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, to reduce disinfectant byproducts.”

The change from chlorine to chloramine unexpectedly reduced decades of protective mineral coating — or scaling — from the lead service lines, which carry drinking water from the utility’s neighborhood pipes into a home’s plumbing system.

“That allowed lead to leach into the water, and cause lead levels to rise in the drinking water in the city because of the existence of that source, which is the lead service lines, and perhaps pipes, fixtures, and solder inside the home,” said Hawkins.

News of lead in Washington’s drinking water caused intense health concerns among residents.

In 2004, with the District’s drinking water above the EPA’s regulatory threshold for lead levels, water and health officials warned pregnant and breastfeeding women and children to not drink unfiltered water. The agency handed out 30,000 water filters and offered blood testing for concerned residents.

At the time, WASA had committed to replacing seven percent of its lead service pipes yearly, with the goal of replacing the agency’s 23,000 pipes by 2010.

1. D.C.'s water crisis begins

The fix that made matters worse

Despite WASA’s pledge to replace lead service lines, the agency says District law prohibited using ratepayer money to replace pipes on private property.

Few homeowners were willing to foot the bill.

“In most cases the private landowner did not agree to replace the private side lead line when we were replacing the public side lead line,” Hawkins said. He estimates replacing the service line would have cost homeowners approximately $3,000.

“The fix was actually worse than the problem,” said Edwards. “The way they were doing the replacements, they were actually making the problem worse.”

Hawkins agrees that partial lead service lines exacerbated the problem.

“In the short run, it often increases the amount of lead in the water,” said Hawkins. “With the physical work necessary to replace the public side service line, as you dig up the line, it’s shaking and dislodging the whole system, which often means lead that has been captured or might be in corrosion is being dislodged and going into the water, just from the physical act of replacing the line.”

The partial replacements caused a spike in lead in the drinking water.

Hawkins says the EPA eventually OK’d WASA’s request to stop the partial lead service replacement program in 2009, as Hawkins joined the agency.

Early in the crisis, despite troubling water test results, local and federal health departments maintained that people drinking the water hadn’t been harmed.

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control came into town and wrote a falsified report that literally claimed that not a single man, woman or child in D.C. had any evidence any of them had their blood lead elevated above CDC’s level of concern,” said Edwards. “In other words, as one paper said, this was much ado about nothing.”

A 2004 report from CDC concluded lead was not causing noticeable harm to residents.

Edwards had his doubts.

2. The fix that makes matters worse

The most vulnerable victims of lead

In 2008, after the CDC and other agencies refused to provide details, Edwards persuaded Children’s National Medical Center to share data, so he could do independent testing of lead levels in D.C. children’s blood samples.

In published research, Edwards found the incidence of elevated blood levels was more than four times higher in D.C. children than before the water treatment chemicals were changed.

While not proving causality, Edwards determined the number of late-term miscarriages and spontaneous abortions in the District was abnormally high during the years 2000-2004, before the lead crisis was reported.

In 2010, a House investigative committee determined the Centers for Disease Control made “scientifically indefensible” claims in 2004 when it said children were not being harmed.

Soon afterward, in a Washington Post op-ed, CDC director Thomas Frieden acknowledged that in its urgency to rapidly assess the situation, “the CDC communicated scientific results poorly.”

“The CDC’s report left room for misinterpretation and may have led some people to improperly minimize concerns about lead exposure and conclude that lead in the water had never been a problem,” Frieden wrote.

Edwards doesn’t think that acknowledgment goes far enough.

“Kids in D.C. that got hurt and have special needs, their families that are paying these extraordinary educational bills, they got nothing because the federal government covered this problem up completely,” he said.

Edwards says Flint residents are getting hundreds of millions of dollars to help in the wake of their water crisis.

“D.C. kids got the shaft. Their families got the shaft. They didn’t even get an apology,” says Edwards.

3. The most vulnerable victims

Orthophosphate: The right stuff

In 2004, the Washington Aqueduct began adding orthophosphate in the water treatment process as part of the requirements in the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule — the agency’s guideline that dictates the parameters and actions water companies must meet and follow to stay within acceptable lead limits.

“The mistake we made when we made the treatment from chlorine to chloramine was that we did not use orthophosphate initially, and that caused lead to leach from the pipe,” says Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Aqueduct.

Holding up a piece of old lead pipe from the initial push to remove lead service lines, Jacobus says the addition of the chemical alters the way drinking water interacts with lead pipes.

“It changes the inside of the pipe from lead to an oxide of lead, but that lead oxide is resistant to the leaching as it sits stagnant in the pipe,” said Jacobus.

Edwards says the orthophosphate took several years to work effectively, but DC Water’s Hawkins says within a year lead levels were below EPA’s standards that would have required additional actions to stem the corrosion.

Initially, the Aqueduct used a higher dose of orthophosphate. Once a protective layer formed on pipes, the dose was lowered after complaints of cloudy water, Jacobus said.

“We’re very confident that the orthophosphate system is working,” said Jacobus. “We test it hourly.”

Jacobus says in addition to computer monitoring of orthophosphate levels in the treatment plant, scientists conduct hourly tests of water from the tap in the Aqueduct’s laboratory.

In addition, the Aqueduct runs lead pipe loops, “where we’re measuring finished water leaving the treatment plant with the treatment chemicals, and seeing the effect here at the plant,” says Jacobus. This mirrors conditions in customers’ homes.

Edwards concurs the orthophosphate treatment really is working.

“It’s not perfect but, in general, we find that D.C. tends to have less lead now after this horrible nightmare of the lead crisis and then the cure being worse than the problem. But now, D.C. probably has [a level of] lead in water that’s better than most urban cities with lead pipe,” Edwards said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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