There’s a very serious scandal going on in Washington D.C., concerning the cover-up of the problem of lead in that city’s water.

Apparently, someone decided to get rid of Chlorine to disinfect the water supply in Washington DC:

About seven-and-a-half years ago, the District of Columbia’s water authority switched from chlorination to an alternative water-disinfection technology: chloramination. The goal had been to reduce the potentially carcinogenic by-products of chlorination that developed in drinking water…. an unintended consequence of this improved disinfection technique was the sudden release of copious amounts of lead into the drinking water.

It seems that Chlorine helped bind lead in pipes, and by getting rid of Chlorine, the lead entered the water supply.

But in this case, there was a delay in recognizing the problem, and even after the problem was recognized in 2004, and corrected, city officials dismissed worries by parents over the high lead levels in city water. (Report HERE).

Uh, Lead is a pretty toxic substance. Back in the 1960’s, we still saw cases of acute and chronic brain damage in kids who had eaten lead paint off of furniture and walls (the flakes tended to be sweet, and kids tend to put everything in their mouth). And the reason that people now use unleaded gasoline was that in urban areas, there was a low but worrisome amount of lead being released into the air and environment.

But the city assured people there was no problem, basing it on a 2004 CDC report that showed testing in the problem neighborhoods showed mildly increased levels of lead in their blood, but didn’t show any toxic levels of lead.

Yet this didn’t make sense to the scientists who did the more recent study.

So they checked the blood lead levels done on small children which were done at the Children’s National Medical Center, and found some children had borderline or even dangerous levels of lead, depending on where they lived (pipes vary from neighborhood to neighborhood).

Previously, 0.5 percent of children in this age range had blood-lead concentrations exceeding 10 micrograms per liter. Now the rate was almost 5 percent. And, they found, elevated blood-lead concentrations in young children did not fall back to pre-chloramination values “until about 2005, when lead in water once again met EPA standards.”

Normal blood lead levels are 2 or under, and usually acute lead poisoning (“encephalopathy”) requires levels over 100, so the increase to 10 is not dangerous…or is it?

From Medscape:

With the recent evidence demonstrating an inverse association between blood lead levels and cognitive function in children exposed to low levels of lead, there is no safety margin at existing exposures. Clearly, efforts must continue to minimize childhood exposure.

However, we would urge that these efforts be seen in perspective. The magnitude of the lead-IQ dose-response relationship is small on a population basis and should be set against the far greater combined effect of SES (socioeconomic status) and quality of the caregiving environment.

Translation: Well, yes, if you measure lead, you’ll find the higher the lead level the lower your IQ, but after all, if you are poor and come from a poor neighborhood and have lousy parents, your IQ is lower anyway, so let’s solve the other social problems first.

This ignores the real problem: The money for clean water comes out of another budget, and  dismissing the importance of clean water in the environment just because the neighborhoods are poor and have other social problems is ignoring the real problem: pollution.

Finally, the elephant in the room in all of this is the cover-up, where the city officials assured parents that there was no problem, just move along….

From Science News:

The District of Columbia government manipulated data about the health impacts of lead contamination in local water supplies between 2001 and 2004. Federal agencies then colluded in downplaying any lead-poisoning risks to D.C. children by keeping quiet about what they knew. Or so charges Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, the lead author of a paper that details repercussions of the incident.

If such a cover-up had occurred in Silver Springs instead of inner city Washington, one doubts that they would get away with it.

Luckily, the problem is now fixed, so you don’t have to resort to drinking bottled water when you visit D.C.

But one reason that even poor people in the US buy water filters and bottled water is that for years they have been worried about the quality of their water supply, even in rural areas.

So, do you know how your water is disinfected? Or how the local water company filters the water, and what type of pipes come to your home?

Of course, you could always buy bottled water, and then all you have to do is worry about where that water came from, and the BPA plastic in the bottle leeching into the water…


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes medical essays at HeyDoc Xanga blog.

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