High Lead Levels in D.C. Water Threaten Developing Children

Feb. 23, 2004

More than 2000 homes in Washington D.C. have water lead levels in excess of 50 ppb, The Washington Post reported.

Such dramatically high levels of lead can cause health risks in prople who drink the water, particularly in those younger than age six.

Federal guidelines require water utilities to conduct comprehensive lead-pipe replacement programs if the lead content is higher than 15 parts per billion in a certain number of homes. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority quietly launched that program last year after discovering that 2,287 D.C. houses had water-lead levels exceeding 50 parts per billion. Those homes included 157 with more than 300 parts per billion.

Lead-based paint is the leading cause of environmental lead in Washington D.C., as it is around the country. However, lead-tainted water, when added to elevated blood-lead levels caused by paint, make things worse for many children.

News that lead in drinking water may exceed federal safety guidelines has made many parents of small children anxious.Some children have tested positive for elevated levels of lead intheir blood. Physically, the seem fine, but finding out whether this exposure to lead will have lasting consequences -- on intelligence, attention span and behavior -- generally takes years.

The number of life-threatening lead poisoning cases and deaths in the United States has steadily declined over the last three decades, mainly because of the 1978 ban on the sale of lead-based paint and a ban eight years later on leaded gasoline, scientists say.

Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 400,000 U.S. children each year have lead in their blood at levels that exceed the national standard.

Officials estimate that of the 45,549 children under age 6 living in the District, 3,700 — or 8 percent -- have elevated blood-lead levels. That is well above the national average, said Lynette Stokes, chief of the lead prevention program. She acknowledges that the District's lead poisoning surveillance system so far has seriously understated the problem and that her figure is the best available estimate using flawed data, the Post reported

The city has made strides in tracking lead poisoning, "but we still have a long way to go," Stokes said. About half of the city's children younger than 6 are tested, with the results reported to the city by doctors each year. Many doctors who perform tests fail to turn in the results as required, she said, while an unknown number of children simply go untested. Moreover, there is no system to track how early lead exposure affects adults, the Post reported.

Experts agree that all children younger than 6 who swallow substantial amounts of lead-based paint dust or tainted drinking water face reduced potential for lifetime achievement and increased social and behavioral problems. The higher their blood-lead levels, the more likely problems will arise.

Source: The Washington Post