It’s time to change lead pipes, EPA says — How DC’s water crisis spurred this move 20 years ago

Cities nationwide would need to replace lead pipes by 2037 under proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at preventing health crises, such as the one in D.C. more than 20 years ago. The local water authority is offering help to residents looking to check the quality of their home’s drinking water.

Many older homes in the District were built with lead service lines — the pipes that connect water mains in the street to homes. After years of efforts to replace those lines, the EPA announced Thursday it is cracking down on lead pipes in the hopes of improving IQ scores in children and reducing high blood pressure and heart disease in adults.

D.C. Water offers test kits that determine if there’s a significant amount of lead in a home or business’ plumbing. Those interested in getting a test kit can request one online.

The water authority also has an interactive map that marks areas with a suspected or confirmed presence of lead.

D.C. Water released a plan this year that stated it would work to remove all lead service lines by 2030 as part of its “Lead Free D.C.” program that provides free or discounted lead pipe replacements.

In a statement released Thursday, D.C. Water said the organization’s efforts to remove lead service lines are aligned with President Joe Biden’s administration and goals, though finding the funding to meet the timeline may be challenging.

“Funding for private side lead replacements within the proposed rules’ time frame is an area of concern, and more work will be needed to address funding gaps while balancing the simultaneous imperatives of aging infrastructure and customer affordability,” the statement reads.

D.C. Water said it’s already working to secure federal funding to reduce the cost to customers and will be collaborating with local legislators to mandate residents replace their service lines.

WTOP's Shayna Estulin explains what comes with D.C. Water's at-home lead level test kits.

Before Flint, it was DC’s water crisis that eroded public trust

The crisis in Flint, Michigan, where thousands of children have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead in drinking water, caught the attention of health officials, media and legislators. But a lead crisis in D.C. a decade earlier had already contributed to shattering public trust.

The EPA rule had required utilities to measure tap water for lead in homes and notify the public if too many results are high. That notification requirement should have been triggered in 2001 in D.C., but the local utility hid some results from the EPA, making the city appear to be in compliance, when it was not.

A 12-page brochure that came out the following year buried news of the problem at the bottom of the third page, after boasting that the utility “delivers safe drinking water that meets or surpasses EPA requirements,” according to a law firm’s investigation years later.

D.C. residents found out about the unfolding crisis in 2004. Two-thirds of recently tested homes had lead concentrations above the EPA’s threshold of 15 parts of lead per billion parts of water.

Then in March of 2004, the CDC published a report that said high levels of lead in drinking water in Washington did not significantly increase blood lead levels in young children.

But years later a House oversight committee report found that the CDC left out critical data and used testing methods on kids that muddied the link between blood lead levels and lead in drinking water. In fact, blood lead levels in young D.C. children substantially increased during the drinking water crisis, according to later work by Virginia Tech lead expert Marc Edwards.

When D.C. moved to dig out lead pipes, it left a portion of the pipe that ran under homes in the ground, which can lead to spikes in lead levels.

The city has made strides in replacing lead pipes and improving monitoring; and now, its lead levels are below the EPA’s action level.

Since launching its program in 2019, D.C. Water said it has replaced more than 4,000 lead service lines with copper pipes using District funding.

WTOP's Shayna Estulin describes how lead pipes in District homes will have to be replaced within the next decade

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jessica Kronzer

Jessica Kronzer graduated from James Madison University in May 2021 after studying media and politics. She enjoys covering politics, advocacy and compelling human-interest stories.

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