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The 2001 Washington, D.C. Water Crisis

Flint, Michigan. To anyone who paid attention to national news six years ago, the name is immediately familiar and brings with it a distasteful memory. When the administration of Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the local Flint River to save money, the obvious lead contamination of the river water quickly caused a national sensation, forcing the officials to switch back to the original water source and make other efforts to lower the lead levels in the municipal water system.

What many don’t know is that only fifteen years before, a similar problem sprang up in our very own Washington, D.C. According to an article in WTOP News (titled "Before Flint: D.C.’s drinking water crisis was even worse"), in 2000, the Washington Aqueduct replaced the chemical chlorine, which it had previously used to treat the city’s water, with chloramine due to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s “disinfectant byproduct rule”, a regulation introduced to reduce the quantity of harmful byproducts of the water disinfectant process. However, this change also resulted in the corrosion of the passivation layers, or protective mineral coatings, of many of D.C.’s lead pipes, which led to lead leaching into the water system. As early as 2001, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) detected widespread increased levels of lead in the city’s water, but despite being required by federal law to notify federal regulators of the unusually high lead concentrations, the utility allegedly and inexcusably withheld the information from the proper authorities. Even when WASA began to notify citizens about the problem, it was slow to do so and failed to communicate the urgency of the situation.

The crisis did not receive enough attention until 2004, when WASA finally published the results of a citywide tap water test it had conducted. Many citizens were shocked to learn that the lead levels of the water coming into their homes exceeded the EPA’s limit of 15 parts per billion by up to hundreds of ppb. Upon receiving the information, the Washington Post published an article about the situation (titled “Water in D.C. Exceeds EPA Lead Limit") to raise awareness, followed by two more in 2009 and 2016 (“High Lead Levels Found in D.C. Kids" and "D.C.’s decade-old problem of lead in water gets new attention during Flint crisis", respectively).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released a study in March of 2004 (titled “Blood Lead Levels in Residents of Homes with Elevated Lead in Tap Water --- District of Columbia, 2004”) claiming that none of the residents of the homes with ridiculously high levels of lead in their water had blood lead levels (BLLs) of concern. However, researchers at Virginia Tech and Children’s National Medical Center performed a similar study (titled “Elevated Blood Lead in Young Children Due to Lead-Contaminated Drinking Water: Washington, DC, 2001−2004”) and came to the conclusion that in fact, around 42,000 children in the District from conception to two years of age were likely adversely affected by lead consumption. One of the authors, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, further discovered in an independent study (titled “Fetal Death and Reduced Birth Rates Associated with Exposure to Lead-Contaminated Drinking Water”) a correlation between miscarriages and high water lead levels in D.C. (WLLs). Throughout the crisis, Edwards has been a staunch advocate for the dissemination of the truth about the situation and immediate, effective action to combat the lead water contamination. In 2010, shortly before WASA changed its name to DC Water, a House investigative subcommittee confirmed that the CDC’s 2004 report directly spread misinformation about the crisis and criticized the CDC both for neglecting to conduct the study with vigilance and for failing to correct its mistakes later.

At last, early in 2004, the city was headed toward reparations. WASA’s initial solution to the emergency was to remove and replace the lead plumbing, but according to law, the District is only allowed to fund the replacement of pipes on public property, and landowners are not even obligated to pay for the pipe reinstallment. Thus, faced with thousands of dollars in potential expenses, landowners opted to take their chances with the lead pipes instead. Despite WASA’s efforts, the attempt to replace the lead service lines paradoxically introduced more lead into the system, and officials were forced yet again to seek out a solution to the continuing crisis.

Finally, the Washington Aqueduct introduced the chemical orthophosphate to the city’s water treatment process. Orthophosphate causes the lead to oxidize and thus reduced the city’s WLLs to the pre-2000 levels. Although D.C. water is now safe from lead contamination, many who were raised in D.C. during the crisis, especially those who were under two years of age between 2001 and 2004, still retain adverse effects of the lead poisoning, including hindered physical and mental development and also cardiovascular and reproductive problems. That population, which is now between 17 and 22 years of age, may include some of our own student body at Saint Anselm’s Abbey School and likely includes some of our recent alumni.

The consequences of lead poisoning are no laughing matter, and it is essential that our government actively works to prevent it at all times. Lead poisoning can result not only from water contamination but also from lead paint, certain consumer products, and other sources. Cities across the country are still dealing with the problem of lead contamination, especially in their water systems. Fortunately for those of us in D.C., our lead water crisis is over, and many have learned from it. More information about lead exposure, lead poisoning, and legal regulations about lead can be found on the CDC’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention webpage and the EPA’s Lead webpage. From all of us here at the Priory Press, stay safe!