As Flint Shows, Lead Remains a Health Risk

More than a decade ago, DC Appleseed undertook efforts to protect D.C. residents from lead in the drinking water. Our work was in response to reports that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA, now DC Water) had detected unhealthy levels of lead in the water system numerous times, but had not timely informed the public, if at all.

As we noted in our 2004 report, problems with lead in the drinking water are not limited to the District. And today, there is another crisis in Flint, Michigan that has gained national attention. After the city switched from buying treated water from Detroit to treating water itself from the Flint River, lead levels rose in the drinking water beyond the federal action level, and the proportion of children with elevated blood lead levels doubled. It turned out that the new water supply was not getting appropriate corrosion control, which caused pipes to corrode and lead to leach into the water. Officials at various levels of government were aware of the problem, but failed to take action or inform the public until the damage had been done.

Over the past decade, the District has taken steps to protect residents from contaminated drinking water and keep them informed. As we recommended, the District established a single agency—the Department of Energy and Environment—charged with ensuring compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental laws. And we helped DC Water recognize its public health mission and commit to improved testing and education regarding lead in the drinking water.

But lead still poses a risk to public health, and not just in the drinking water. Lead can still be found around the home, including in paint and soil, and it can be brought inside by pets or individuals who might be exposed in the workplace. And even though blood lead levels in children have decreased significantly over the past several decades, 2.6% of children nationwide still have high lead levels, and the prevalence among black children is twice what it is among white children.

The CDC has been lowering what it considers to be an “elevated” lead level from 30 micrograms per deciliter in 1985 to the current 5 micrograms per deciliter. But from a public health perspective, there is no safe level. Even low levels are associated with adverse, permanent neurological effects in children, including harm to cognitive function and attention-related and antisocial behavioral problems. And unfortunately, our laws and practices regarding lead may not be in keeping with the seriousness of the problem.

Recognizing this, DC Appleseed is starting to explore how we might build on our earlier work on lead in the drinking water and explore how the District might better protect public health from lead.

One area of focus may be making sure that more children are getting the screening they need. Of the 16,000 Medicaid-eligible children age 2 and under in the District, only 30% to 50% are getting the two required screens. Better data would help families and providers know whether they need to take action to protect children’s health. It would also help officials know who and where are experiencing higher lead levels so that targeted steps can be taken to protect public health.

We’ll keep you updated as our lead project takes on this possible new direction.

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