Congressional report prompts fear and anger over lead in D.C. water

Posted on May 24, 2010 in Health & Wellness

By Carol D. Leonnig

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, May 21, 2010

Federal and local political leaders, D.C. parents and health advocates reacted Thursday with a mixture of anger and fear to news that a federal agency misled them about the harm that lead in the District’s water had caused — and might still be causing.

The furor came as a House investigative subcommittee released a report showing that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knowingly used flawed data when telling D.C. residents that their health hadn’t been harmed by spikes in lead in the drinking water in 2004. The investigation, the subject of a congressional hearing Thursday, also disclosed new cause for alarm: Internal CDC research shows that an effort to fix the lead problem since 2004 puts residents in 9,100 D.C. homes at much higher risk of lead poisoning.

Some city parents, along with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), accused the CDC of engaging in a coverup to shield the water utility and federal regulators from blame.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, which distributed the tainted water from late 2000 to 2004 and had trumpeted the CDC’s calming assurances for six years, held conference calls Thursday to prepare for customers’ new concerns. At the WASA call center and Web site, fearful residents were offered free tests of tap water, recommendations to run their faucets and vigilant monitoring of water quality.

“Today’s findings raise questions about the past actions of one of the most reputable public health agencies in the world,” said WASA General Manager George S. Hawkins. “Our agency is committed to maintaining the public trust in today’s water supply.”


D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-At Large) has repeatedly questioned the CDC analysis and WASA’s partial replacement of lead pipes to reduce exposure. Now the House Science and Technology subcommittee has found that the CDC has not publicized 2007 research showing that children in homes with partial replacements were four times as likely as others to have unsafe levels of lead in their blood.

Graham said he was stunned by investigators’ findings about the CDC’s careless attitude toward missing data and the red flags suggesting that their analysis was wrong.

“To now learn that the Centers for Disease Control not only got it wrong but may have intentionally misled District residents and our water agency is the ultimate betrayal of the public trust,” Graham said.

The CDC said that the agency has analyzed its 2004 findings again with recovered data and that the new director, Thomas Frieden, thinks they generally confirm the original, contested findings.

“Dr. Frieden intends to continue working with Chairman Miller to learn from this incident and improve the scientific process at CDC,” the CDC said in a statement, referring to the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.)

The congressional investigation placed most of the blame for the 2004 report on Mary Jean Brown, the CDC’s director of lead poisoning prevention. It found that she ignored missing data and contrary conclusions. She gave her fellow authors three hours to review her analysis before publication.

The year-long House investigation vindicated Virginia Tech water expert Marc Edwards, who has repeatedly questioned the CDC finding and spent thousands of hours and dollars requesting public records, reanalyzing blood test data and investigating how the agency reached its counterintuitive conclusion. For a decade, researchers have found that even low levels of lead could cause permanent mental and physical damage in children.

“If you were a child living in D.C. at that time, a single glass of tap water could have elevated your blood lead to unsafe levels,” Edwards testified at the subcommittee hearing. “But they could not allow it to be perceived that even one child had been harmed.”