This is a story of bad government, children at risk and, perhaps, a glimmer of hope.
Marc Edwards is a dedicated and very smart scientist and engineer (he won both a MacArthur Fellowship and a White House Presidential Faculty Fellowship) named by Time magazine as one of the four most important scientists seeking innovative answers to the world’s worsening water problems.
While teaching at Virginia Tech, where he is a professor in environmental engineering and applied aquatic chemistry, and publishing more than 93 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, Edwards became interested in the drinking water of the nation’s capital.
One of the options the Environmental Protection Agency gave cities for switching from chlorine in tap water was adding chloramine disinfectant. The federal agency did this for all the right reasons. But it became a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences.
Instead of protecting Washington, D.C.’s children from the real and dangerous toxin of lead in drinking water, chloramine exacerbated the problem. From 2001-2003, the city’s water had dangerously high lead levels.
Concerned that chloramine increased the incidence of lead leaching in residential and commercial aqueducts, Edwards could not get city and federal health officials to drop their insistence that there was no problem, even though the city’s water had the highest lead levels ever recorded in the nation. The city touted a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed no problem, but it involved erroneous data.
(Since 2004, the city’s water has been treated differently and has reportedly safe lead levels of an average of 8 parts per billion. That compares with 5,000 parts per billion five years ago. The federal government says anything over 15 parts per billion is of concern. The safety of D.C.’s water remains questionable. Experts recommend running tap water two to 10 minutes before drinking.)
For almost three years, Edwards filed 33 requests for information and documentation under the Freedom of Information Act from the city bureaucracy in trying to figure out what had happened to D.C. children’s lead levels. He got nowhere. He was either stonewalled, ignored or told the data was "lost." He appealed to the EPA; he got no response.
Edwards and colleagues at Virginia Tech and the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington did their own study. Using analyses of thousands of D.C. children’s blood tests, the team found that city and federal officials were dead wrong in insisting there was no data to show that high lead levels in the city’s drinking water affected health.
From 2001-2004, the number of D.C. children and babies with lead levels capable of causing brain damage and developmental problems more than doubled. At least 42,000 children ages 4 to 9 might be at risk. They were under 2 when the city’s drinking water showed its highest lead levels. Lead poisoning can reduce IQs and cause aggressive, troubled behavior. There is no way now, years later, to test the children and no way to treat them other than with extra calcium and one-on-one educational tutoring.
Edwards concluded that the D.C. Department of Health, the city’s Water and Sewage Authority and the EPA knew about the danger, but never warned parents.
But change may be coming to a system notorious for its lack of checks and balances. Edwards received a letter from the EPA dated the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration, saying the EPA has a new staff and that his years old appeal for information would be answered.
Getting the records now is moot; Edwards’ team study proved that high lead levels in the national capital’s tap water led to high lead levels in vulnerable children and that city and federal officials covered it up.
"This isn’t even new science. It’s old science," Edwards said. "It’s unbelievable what they got away with, including scientific fraud. Many people should have been fired."
Shortly after being sworn in, the EPA’s new administrator, Lisa Jackson, told her employees that protecting children from toxins such as lead will be one of the agency’s highest priorities.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)