Lead is not tasty

This sort of governmental corruption (or at best, institutional ignorance) disgusts me. Lead should not be in drinking water, ever, and the agencies in charge of protecting the citizens from pollutants should do their job, or go to jail.

Lead on tap | Salon News : ...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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Just disgusting.

(read whole article here)

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This page contains a single entry by swanksalot published on November 27, 2006 12:10 PM.

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