Poisoning the District : Lead in D.C. Pipes

Miranda Cleland

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Visions of D.C. typically include clean water. From the Tidal Basin to the Georgetown waterfront, pristine water is vital to Washington’s image. But underground, its pipes tell another story: D.C. has a lead problem.

Last April, the Washington Post reported three D.C. public schools had elevated levels of lead. While any amount of lead in drinking water is problematic, it’s especially harmful to young children—and immigrant children of color are at the highest risk.

Claudia Barragan, longtime D.C. resident and community urban planner who works with D.C.’s Latinx immigrant population in Columbia Heights, has seen firsthand the struggles D.C.’s immigrant communities face. 

“Immigrant parents working long hours might not have time to think about the quality of their children’s drinking water,” Barragan said, speaking from experience as the child of Bolivian immigrants. 

She also says that reports are often not translated into Spanish, and this language barrier puts immigrants at an even higher risk.

While little data is available for D.C. specifically, a 2013 report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reads, “Refugee [and immigrant] children are at above-average risk for lead poisoning from ongoing exposure once in the United States since they often settle into high-risk areas with older housing.”  

Low-income families often can’t afford water filters, bottled water or the replacement of private water lines in their homes.

“Immigrants are always the last ones invited to the conversation [about policy],” Barragan said. “Local lawmakers don’t seek the input of the rest of the city. They have this really bad habit of only including who the government sees as stakeholders––people with money and well-established networks. We don’t have a seat at the table.”

Young children are more susceptible to lead poisoning and absorb 4-5 times more lead than adults, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The health effects of lead exposure to children include “damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells,” according to the CDC.

WHO also reports that lead exposure in adults increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. In pregnant women, the exposure damages the developing fetus and can cause miscarriages.

“My friends and I are concerned about 3ug/L lead levels in our area. It’s below the 15ug/L threshold, but it still isn’t great,” said Taylor Hooks, a resident in Columbia Heights. “We take special care to use only bottled water or filtered water everyday.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time D.C. has faced this issue. D.C. dealt with scares in the 1980s and 1990s when elevated levels of lead contaminated drinking water.

But it wasn’t until 2004 that D.C. — and the nation — became aware of the magnitude of the situation.

“People don’t realize this—the extent of the problem in Washington DC [in 2004] was about 20 to 30 times larger than Flint [in 2016],” said Virginia Tech civil engineer professor Marc Edwards in an interview with the broadcast radio station, WTOP.

Edwards investigated D.C.’s water after doubting a CDC report claiming that lead levels at the time were not damaging to children. He tested blood samples of D.C. children and found high lead levels indicating long-term exposure to lead contaminated drinking water.

Edwards’ research showed the incidence of elevated blood lead concentrations for children under the age of 16 months increased four times during the peak of the D.C. lead crisis in the early 2000s. He determined that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), District of Columbia Water and Sewage Authority (WASA), and the CDC committed a series of scientific and ethical wrongdoings in reporting lead levels by understating the gravity of the situation.

As a result, the gravity of D.C.’s lead problem was seriously understated and may have lead the public to a false sense of security. Long-term lead exposure was and is poisoning an unknown number of children in the District.

“D.C. needs to invest in its infrastructure,” Barragan said. “If you invest in a community’s health, it benefits a city’s economics and development. Now is the time for D.C. to take ownership of the issue.”

Since Edwards’ groundbreaking research, WASA has committed to replacing 7 percent of public lead service lines per year.

“Unfortunately, the law limits D.C.’s funding to replacing public lines [only],” said WASA Water Communications Coordinator Melanie Mason. 

The cost of replacing private lines falls on homeowners. A cost, Barragan says, entirely out of reach for most Latinx immigrant families in D.C.

D.C.’s local government has taken action to the high levels of lead. The Washington Aqueduct began treating its water with orthophosphate, a chemical which helps prevent led from poisoning drinking water, in 2004, according to a WASA newsletter of the same year. Edwards and other experts generally regard the addition of orthophosphate as a success.

In addition to orthophosphate treatments, WASA prioritizes public education efforts. It published an online interactive map that allows D.C. residents to check the status of their water pipes, both public and private. While WASA admits not all of the data is up to date and accurate, the map gives a general picture of the prevalence of lead around the city. The picture is not a pretty one: lead pipes are sprinkled all throughout the city, from Southeast to Northwest. Mason says this interactive map is part of an effort to be more transparent.

“Overall, the response has been very good,” Mason said. “[WASA] has received over 1,000 requests for free-lead test kits, a huge number.”

However, 12 years after the water crisis, Barragan is not impressed with WASA’s efforts to heighten community awareness.

“[WASA] has not done a good job of informing [residents] or addressing the issue,” Barragan said. “The city has to be doing more outreach. They don’t want to heighten the urgency because of what is happening in Flint.”