Lead is a toxic metal that, when ingested through paint, water, and soil, can cause brain damage, behavioral problems and developmental problems.In 2004, the Washington Post reported that a change in water treatment chemicals at the federally operated Washington Aqueduct in 2000 had inadvertently triggered the absorption of lead from the District’s aging lead service lines and lead pipes in older homes.
“People went crazy because they realized their families had been exposed to high lead without really knowing about it,” Edwards said.
In 2000, Hawkins said, the Washington Aqueduct, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the water treatment system for D.C., “was changing from chlorine to chloramine, which is a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, to reduce disinfectant byproducts.”
“That allowed lead to leach into the water, and cause lead levels to rise in the drinking water in the city because of the existence of that source, which is the lead service lines, and perhaps pipes, fixtures, and solder inside the home,” said Hawkins.
In 2004, with the District’s drinking water above the EPA’s regulatory threshold for lead levels, water and health officials warned pregnant and breastfeeding women and children to not drink unfiltered water. The agency handed out 30,000 water filters and offered blood testing for concerned residents.
Despite WASA’s pledge to replace lead service lines, the agency says District law prohibited using ratepayer money to replace pipes on public property.
“The fix was actually worse than the problem,” said Edwards. “The way they were doing the replacements, they were actually making the problem worse.”
“In the short run, it often increases the amount of lead in the water,” said Hawkins. “With the physical work necessary to replace the public side service line, as you dig up the line, it’s shaking and dislodging the whole system, which often means lead that has been captured or might be in corrosion is being dislodged and going into the water, just from the physical act of replacing the line.”
Hawkins says the EPA eventually OK’d WASA’s request to stop the partial lead service replacement program in 2009, as Hawkins joined the agency.
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control came into town and wrote a falsified report that literally claimed that not a single man, woman or child in D.C. had any evidence any of them had their blood lead elevated above CDC’s level of concern,” said Edwards. “In other words, as one paper said, this was much ado about nothing.”
Edwards had his doubts.
In published research, Edwards found the incidence of elevated blood levels was more than four times higher in D.C. children than before the water treatment chemicals were changed.
In 2010, a House investigative committee determined the Centers for Disease Control made“scientifically indefensible” claims in 2004 when it said children were not being harmed.
Soon afterward, in a Washington Post op-ed, CDC director Thomas Frieden acknowledged that in its urgency to rapidly assess the situation, “the CDC communicated scientific results poorly.”
Edwards doesn’t think that acknowledgment goes far enough.
Edwards says Flint residents are getting hundreds of millions of dollars to help in the wake of their water crisis.
In 2004, the Washington Aqueduct began adding orthophosphate in the water treatment process as part of the requirements in the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule – the agency’s guideline that dictates the parameters and actions water companies must meet and follow to stay within acceptable lead limits.
“The mistake we made when we made the treatment from chlorine to chloramine was that we did not use orthophosphate initially, and that caused lead to leach from the pipe,” says Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Aqueduct.
“It changes the inside of the pipe from lead to an oxide of lead, but that lead oxide is resistant to the leaching as it sits stagnant in the pipe,” said Jacobus.
Initially, the Aqueduct used a higher dose of orthophosphate. Once a protective layer formed on pipes, the dose was lowered after complaints of cloudy water, Jacobus said.
Jacobus says in addition to computer monitoring of orthophosphate levels in the treatment plant, scientists conduct hourly tests of water from the tap in the Aqueduct’s laboratory.
Edwards concurs the orthophosphate treatment really is working.