Flint Crisis Dredges Up DC's Own Era of Unsafe Water

Some lawsuits from the early 2000s are still working their way through the courts

For a generation of D.C. parents, the Flint crisis has dredged up painful memories of when they learned that glasses of tap water they handed to their children -- and drank while pregnant -- were poisoned.

D.C. tap water is safer now than ever, the water utility says, but from 2001 to 2004, tap water samples contained as much as five times the concentration of lead the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe.

A Virginia Tech professor recently testified before a congressional committee the problem of lead in D.C.'s water in the early 2000s was "20 to 30 times worse" than the current crisis in Flint, Michigan. He said the EPA could have prevented Flint’s crisis if it had learned from lessons in D.C.

At 15 parts per billion, water utilities must inform the public about how to protect their health. Samples of D.C. water spiked at 80 parts of lead per billion from mid-2001 to mid-2002, data from D.C. Water shows.

Capitol Hill resident Satu Haase-Webb, who had a 2-year-old daughter and was pregnant with her second child, was stunned to learn in 2004 that the water her family drank contained 308 parts of lead per billion.

"You're completely floored as a parent," she said. "You find out that you may have inadvertently exposed your child to a neurotoxin."

In children, exposure to lead can cause brain damage, learning and behavioral problems, and lowered IQs. In pregnant women, exposure can cause miscarriages and premature births. There's no reversing the damage.

Satu Haase-Webb's children -- now 14, 12 and 7 -- are healthy, but she said she worries about whether they were affected by the lead exposure.

"I don't know to this day if my children would be different if we hadn't had this," she said.

Gretchen Mikeska, another Capitol Hill resident, also said she wonders if her daughter, born in 2002, was affected by tap water she drank while pregnant and gave to her child. Her daughter, now 14, attends a school for children with language-based learning differences.

"There's no real way you can draw a line from A to B," she said.

Haase-Webb said she was devastated to learn that in Flint, like in D.C., lead from pipes leached into tap water.

"How horrific in this day and age that this can still happen," the historian said. "Haven't we learned anything from D.C.?"

Mikeska, an environmental engineer, said federal and local officials should have known that lead pipes in older cities could pose a threat.

"It seems like anyone thinking about this a little could have know that this was a problem," she said.

Lead levels in D.C. water climbed in the early 2000s after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers changed its water treatment chemical from chlorine to chloramine. The change was made because of EPA guidelines meant to limit byproducts used to treat water. What officials did not know is that chloramine would react differently with pipes, leading to corrosion and leaching lead from pipes into the water.

Lawsuits, some of which are still open after more than a decade, allege a deliberate cover-up by D.C. Water, then called the Water and Sewer Authority (WASA). Parents argued in court that "not only did the authority fail to eliminate this danger, it actually took affirmative steps to hide the lead contamination from its customers and federal authorities."

Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on March 15 that EPA officials should have used what they learned in the District in the early 2000s to prevent what happened in Flint.

“The EPA and other agencies caused a similar lead-in-the-water crisis in Washington, D.C. from 2001 to 2004 that actually was 20 to 30 times worse in terms of the health harm to children in Washington, D.C.," he said.

Edwards told The Washington Post his comparison between D.C. and Flint was based on “the number of people, the duration of exposure and the population harmed.”

Is DC's Tap Water Safe Now?

D.C. tap water now is safer to drink than ever, the water utility says.

"Yes, we did have a lead crisis in the early 2000s," D.C. Water spokesman John Lisle said. "Today, lead levels are controlled by the addition of an anti-corrosive chemical at the [Washington] Aqueduct and our lead levels are at historically low levels."

D.C. water contained lead levels of fewer than 4 parts per billion as of June 2015, well below the action level of 15 parts per billion, according to the agency's own data.

While water is lead-free when it leaves the Aqueduct treatment plant, lead can be released from pipes as the water makes its way out of your faucet. Pipes, fixtures and solder on private property can contain lead that can seep into water.

"The water that we treat is safe and lead-free," Lisle said. "Where issues can arrive is in homes that have lead sources."

Some feeder lines, also called service lines, that connect water mains to individual properties are made of lead. D.C. Water is spending about $40 million per year to replace water mains, the spokesman said. When crews replace the water mains, they also replace lead service lines on public space. When that work occurs, D.C. Water encourages property owners to replace service lines on their private land, too. The water utility also will replace lead feeder lines on public land upon request.

WASA's board of directors approved a $300 million program to replace all lead feeder lines on public space but scaled back the program after research and testing showed partial line replacements could disturb lead in pipes on private land, boosting levels of lead in water in the short term.

How to Check the Safety of the Tap Water in Your Home

Any D.C. resident can request a free lead test kit from D.C. Water.

In 2014 and 2015, 766 lead-testing kits were requested, Lisle said. Of those tests delivered to buildings, 446 were returned to the agency with water samples. Ten of those samples showed elevated lead levels, above the EPA action level. D.C. Water then worked with the residents to identify and correct the source of the problem, Lisle said.

Satu Hasse-Webb encouraged D.C. residents to get their lead feeder lines checked and replaced if necessary. She said she tries not to think about D.C.'s decade-old lead crisis anymore -- "it's something I just couldn't control" -- but the potential risks of lead feeder lines still cross her mind.

"I drive through the neighborhood now and know these people have a ticking time bomb on their hands," she said.

To request information about D.C. Water pipes leading to your home, call 202-354-3600. To request a free lead test kit, call 202-612-3440.

Alex Kist contributed reporting.

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