City Desk

Toxic D.C. Tap Water Tops Off Week of Gloomy Health News

Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons license

Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons license

This morning, a bureaucrat from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control , the nation's preeminent public health agency, was summoned to Capitol Hill, where she was, in all likelihood, reamed out by members of a House subcommittee.

And with good reason, according to congressional investigators, who say CDC officials knowingly mislead District residents about the dangers of drinking the tap water in 2004, when it became public that several neighborhoods around the city were experiencing record-breaking lead levels.

CDC officials rushed to release a soothing report insisting that the amount of lead in the water did not pose a health threat, though they knew the findings were based on misleadingly incomplete data, according to WaPo's reporting on the investigation in today's paper. The Centers also failed to publicize a more comprehensive analysis that later showed children in the effected neighborhoods were more than twice as likely than other kids to have dangerous amounts of lead in their blood.

Since House officials haven't posted a podcast and it would have taken way to much effort to venture over to the Rayburn House Office Building, one can only imagine the grilling received by Dr. Robin M. Ikeda, who testified for the CDC at this morning's hearing of a House Science and Technology subcommittee. A quick perusal of her written testimony shows Ikeda defended her agency’s response to the lead controversy, saying: "CDC’s initial reports did not understate the magnitude of the problem."

Also in attendance was Marc Edwards, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University professor, whose study of the lead in the D.C. water supply provided the fodder for the Post’s reporting and the subsequent uproar. He had a pretty different take on the Centers' performance: He called it “a monumental public health fiasco” that affected tens of thousands of D.C. homes.

Exposure to lead can literally make children dumber: According to the EPA, scientists have linked the effects of lead on the brain with lowered IQ in children, among other things.

Besides wondering how many IQ points D.C. youths lost forever, the episode raises questions about the believability of the CDC, the agency that leads the federal government's analysis and response to a wide range of public health threats – everything from combating swine flu and biological weapons to suggesting guidelines on pH levels in public swimming pools.

This hit to the CDC’s credibility – its performance after Hurricane Katrina was also discussed at today’s hearing – comes during a week filled with bad news on the public health front, much of it the kind that suggests our lifestyle is slowly killing us.

Diane Sawyer kicked off a week of gloomy headlines with hand-wringing on ABC World News Monday night over a study linking ADHD to pesticides found on strawberries, peaches and other produce. According to the researchers, children who test positive for the chemicals are twice as likely to have ADHD symptoms.

And, that's only one of the scary side effects linked to pesticides; Let's not forget about the Potomac River's inter-sex fish problem.

Researchers in Germany, meanwhile, announced that people living in cities tend to have higher blood pressure.

Another bummer: Cologne may lower men's sperm count. So the very same toilet water meant to signal a man's virility might actually be stripping him of it.

In other news to be filed under "counterproductive," suntan lotion is contributing to the death of coral reefs. So all those snorkelers who lather on the lotion before taking a dip are helping to kill off a main attraction to going into the water. Sheesh!

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  • Keith B

    "Reemed"? "the effected neighborhoods"? "way to much effort"? I've had it reading your article. My highschool newspaper had better writing than this. Please tell me you're the summer intern or English is not your first language.

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  • Rick Mangus

    My DC Cocktail from the tap smells and taste like swimming pool water! Anyone else with the same experience?

  • Alan Heymann

    Hello, City Desk readers. DC WASA has posted our complete response to this morning's Post report and congressional hearing here:

    Alan Heymann
    Director, Public Affairs
    District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority

  • Blue Pen



  • tired

    Mine has a strong chlorine smell also

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  • downtown rez

    Chlorine is not related to lead.
    Chlorine is relatively harmless but tastes bad, lead is a neurotoxin that has little or no taste at all.
    Kudos to Alan for posting WASA's response. The facts are that DC's public water infrastructure is a patchwork that has developed over the last 150 years. It needs to be modernized, but adequate funding has never been allocated to do so. And now we are seeing the cost of this.
    WASA needs to raise their rates.

  • proballdc

    @DR: Why is it that people think that raising taxes and fees on residents in this city is the always the answer? D.C. WASA already has a ten-year $3.2 billion Capital Improvement Program in place. Are you suggesting that District residents be saddled with more of that? One thing I do respect about Republicans, they don't look at taxes first.

  • Tasty Snatch

    Perhaps the lead in the water explains why DC native residents are so abysmally stupid.

  • downtown rez

    Yes, WASA has a modernization plan.
    I'm suggesting that it doesn't cover what is needed and that as new information (such as Federal lies about lead levels) becomes available that plan will be viewed as inadequate.
    By the way, since when is a fee paid for a good or service delivered a tax?