The Corner Forum
Saturday, Feb. 21, 2004
Issue #62

Officials Seem to Be Minimizing Seriousness of Lead Crisis

By Jim Myers, 1400 block of C Street SE

— Reprinted (with the author's permission) from an e-mail on the "newhilleast" Yahoo listserv.

Two startling concepts leapt out of Tuesday's packed meeting at St. Peter's Church (at 2nd & C Streets SE) about lead contamination in District drinking water. They were not messages that the officials on the panel necessarily wanted the audience to hear. You had to read between the lines.

1. D.C. is currently facing the worst outbreak of lead contamination ever recorded in a city's public water supply.

2. Because the situation is unique, there is no medical literature that describes what happens to general health when lead levels are this high — hence, no one knows for sure what the impact will be in this case.

At one point in the often heated meeting, a specialist on the environmental impact on children's health seemed to suggest that a child in the District might lose "three or four I.Q. points." But the loss would not represent a noticeable difference in the child's behavior or well-being, he said, and who could say it actually happened?

At this moment — and at various others during session — I found myself wondering, "Did they REALLY say what I just think I heard?"

It seemed that the WASA officials (including the chief engineer), District Department of Health doctors, EPA representatives, Council Member Sharon Ambrose and others on the panel were primarily trying to avoid a public panic — or such virulent criticism that they all lose their jobs. Some apparently wanted to give the impression that everything is under control, when it clearly isn't.

Panelists danced around some of the worst news in such a way as to suggest that bad is good or up is down. Maybe some would call it spin; a lot of it sounded like double-talk.

So I went up to panelists privately after the session and asked, "Am I wrong to understand that this is the worse case of lead contamination ever recorded in a public water supply?" One by one, they hemmed, hawed and begged me to see the brighter side. But eventually they agreed. Yes, it could be the worst. There are no others on record that are comparable.

Dr. Lynette Stokes, chief of the Bureau of Hazardous Material and Toxic Substances for the D.C. Department of Health, had earlier pleaded with audience members who live in homes identified as having lead service lines to bring their kids to the Health Department for blood tests.

Why?

Because right now we're in uncharted waters. Officials want to know if their theoretical "model" — which posits that lead from water will not elevate children's blood lead levels dangerously — will turn out to be true.

I asked, "Are we not, in effect, using our children as guinea pigs in an experiment on the effects of lead contamination?"

Perhaps, the question was extreme.

Dr. Stokes insisted that officials have found no dangerous effects in the few cases they've tested and are now hoping this holds true for the larger population.

OK, perhaps I'm also out of sync with the times in my fretting and fussing — looking at the negative not the positive. Perhaps, I am not thinking of the damage to property values, tourism or the renaissance of D.C., if the city were declared an environmental disaster zone or if a massive public outcry demanded a REAL attempt to fix the problem, instead of plans that will take 14 to 20 years.

After all, officials also assured us Tuesday that there is no known case of a child turning into a vegetable after drinking WASA water.

But it would seem from the evidence at Tuesday's meeting that District and WASA officials are still trying to put a happy face on a situation that could have grave consequences.

One last thing: WASA puts a lot of stock in "flushing out the line" — like, run the water for [10] minutes before you take a swig. I'm not going to go into such remedies, because I don't feel qualified to give such advice. But I'd seriously recommend residents find out about "flushing," filters and other possibilities, because it looks like the problem is real. And it isn't going away.

But I also can't help thinking that it might be time to "flush" a few public officials out of the system, too. §