The Corner Forum
Sunday, May 16, 2004
Issue #67

LEAD IN THE WATER: A Caution on Lead Testing Results

By Libo Liu, 500 block of 14th Street NE

So you are like me, living in an old neighborhood and worried about lead in the water. Hopefully, by now, you have contacted WASA, obtained a lead test kit, and sent out and got your result already. I really wonder what you've got back.

But here is what we got. First draw showed lead at 14 parts per billion (ppb), and second draw 17 ppb. With the EPA standard set at 15 ppb, WASA declared that our water was not safe to drink, and sent us a form for us to get on the pipe replacement list. I applauded their honesty and sincerity, given the fact that our numbers only slightly exceeded the EPA limit.

Then again, the true lead content might be much higher than what they told us. After all, wasn't this the same organization that intentionally misled us last year by sending everyone a newsletter titled "Your Water Is Safe?"

So, like many of you did, I asked for a second opinion. I picked up a testing kit at my favorite Frager's Hardware Store for about $10, diligently followed the instructions in getting water into the tiny plastic tube, and sent it off, along with a $15 check, to a company in Florida called Pro-Lab, Inc.

In less than a week, we got the result back from Pro-Lab, but the fun part ended there. A single piece of paper in the envelope proclaimed that the same water that had been tested by WASA as having lead content at 14 ppb and 17 ppb just a few days earlier now had just 0.2 ppb lead. That's eight times better, and I ought to be extremely happy.

But I couldn't. My instincts told me there was something wrong. So I called Pro-Lab, Inc. Alyssa Murray, the company's supervisor of customer service for lead testing, defended the lab result for our water. She said the company had been in business for 10 years and listed a handful of professional associations the company belonged to. Ms. Murray said there had been a surge of test orders from D.C. and Maryland residents, but she had heard no more complaints than normal. She then said to me decisively, "We stand behind our test results."

Unconvinced by the answers, I did a little more research. I went to the company's own Web site and found this statement: "We will send you a professionally documented lead report revealing the amount of lead in your water to as little as 1 ppb."

With an engineering degree, albeit earned many years ago, I think the statement says the accuracy of the company's lead test is limited to 1 ppb. In other words, any lead content less than 1 ppb is beyond the facility's capability to detect. Hence, our result of 0.2 ppb is simply meaningless.

P.S. After I wrapped up my story, a Washington Post story on this very issue was brought to my attention.
The Post reported on May 8 that quite a few area residents received the identical 0.2 ppb results, and that the results were indeed flawed. The story quoted Pro-Lab's CEO as saying that an internal inquiry had found that a subcontractor had used the wrong test on the water — that the 0.2 ppb results should actually have said "less than 200 ppb." The test used by the subcontractor was not precise enough to measure quantities less than 200 ppb, the company's CEO said.

According to the Post story, the subcontractor denied the charge and said Pro-Lab knew all along that the test wasn't meant for measuring lead in drinking water. Also according to the Post story, Pro-Lab will refund $25 to everyone who got the 0.2 ppb results, and will offer a new test kit and new test at a different lab for free. As of Friday, I had not yet received anything from the company. §