Lead in Water: Getting Angry

As someone with a young child in DC during DC’s lead in water scandal of 2004, I thought my reactions to lead in water were pretty, well, reasonable.

That is, I think I know the science and the possibilities both in remediation as well as damage.

But I was wrong about my reasonableness.

Because as I watched the June 22 hearing of our city council on the latest lead in water fiasco in our DC public schools, I found myself getting, well, unreasonable, if not downright angry.

Not that anyone at the hearing was unreasonable: Many people testified about reasonable measures for remediation, for testing, for proactive stances. No one was uncouth, rude, or otherwise lacking decorum. I learned about a number of great organizations working on this issue (Campaign for Lead-Free Water; Lead-Free DC Schools; Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives; Black Millennials for Flint; etc.). The council members present asked great questions, pursued leads, were dogged, etc.

Rather, what made me angry was the huge gulf between our city’s long, and very poor, track record on this issue that parents, teachers, and others testified about–and the, well, relaxed stances of the public officials in charge who testified.

The latter were, to a person, just not alarmed in a way that I, as a citizen, as a parent, as a DC public education consumer, need them to be alarmed.

At times, it was hard to watch. After officials talked about labeling sources with high lead levels using placards saying not to drink from them; when I and council members on the dais could not figure out what devices were getting tested; when they were getting tested; and what the criteria were for re-testing (15 parts per billion (ppb) or 1 ppb, the city’s new standard for lead in water); and how many schools actually have been affected–finally, in the fourth hour of the hearing (!), hearing co-chair Mary Cheh noted that the council had asked for, repeatedly, the protocols used for testing and remediation and still didn’t have them.

Really: Four hours of one hearing, and who knows how many months after high lead levels were found in school water devices, and we STILL do not have testing and remediation protocols for all public water sources?

Instead, what we got from those agencies when their representatives testified was

1. Concern about the cost of testing (after noting that it cost between $80,000 to $100,000 to test charter school water devices, charter board staff member Audrey Williams said it would be good to limit costs so as not to place an “undue burden” on charter budgets);

2. Concern that the lead in water found extensively throughout our schools was being seen as a health crisis rather than as a communications crisis (multiple people, including deputy mayor for education Jennifer Niles and deputy city administrator Kevin Donahue); and

3. A bald note that there is nothing that those agencies can do about lead in water in entirely new school buildings in DC other than to put filters on all devices dispensing water (Christopher Weaver, head of DGS, the agency in charge of DCPS school buildings and their water testing).


While it is indeed true that lead in water is not always the primary way in which lead is delivered to our kids, lead is nonetheless a public health problem when it is present in anything that children consume. It’s not just me saying this: two days before the hearing, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a recommendation that all existing standards for lead exposure be immediately revised in light of the fact that no amount of lead exposure is safe for kids.

Maybe the messaging from the agencies was affected by who was in that hearing room.

That is, of the 8 councilmembers who are on both committees that held the hearing (education and transportation and the environment), only two—David Grosso and Mary Cheh, the heads of those committees, respectively)–were there for the duration.

The only other councilmembers who put in an appearance AT ALL were Charles Allen, a member of both committees, who showed up about 40 minutes into the proceedings; and Kenyan McDuffie, a member of the transportation and environment committee, who showed up about 5 hours into the 6-hour hearing.

Elissa Silverman, who is on neither committee, showed up about an hour into the hearing.

(There was no other hearing occurring at the same time, according to the council calendar.)

Here for the record are the no-show councilmembers:

–Jack Evans (running for re-election, member of transportation and the environment committee)
–Yvette Alexander (was running for re-election, but was defeated in the primary; member of education committee)
–Anita Bonds (member of education committee)
–Brandon Todd (member of both committees and running for re-election)

(Confidential to the council: did you ever think about making Silverman a member of the education committee? Unlike some current members of that committee (hello, Brandon Todd!), she actually shows up to hear what us unwashed masses of DC public education consumers say.)

To be fair, there was a lot of good information in the testimony the public presented and in the questions and comments of councilmembers:

–Lead in water in DC schools was first identified in 1987, almost 30 years ago.

–There was a voluntary program on lead in water testing started in 2007—only in DCPS.

–6,598 water sources at DCPS have been tested since spring and bar-coded. Testing will be done annually on all devices in DCPS.

–Filters will be placed on all devices in DCPS and recreation centers in the next 4-6 months. The prioritization for filters will be in early childhood locales first; then middle schools; then high schools. All devices with lead levels greater than 15 ppb already have filters installed. (Not clear if that is everywhere in the city or only in DCPS and rec centers—statement was made by the DME at 5:07.)

–There will be a “rolling schedule,” per the head of DGS, for changing water filters, since they last only 1 year. He was unsure whether devices dispensing water with higher lead levels would require more frequent changing of filters.

–In DCPS, the regime is to have DGS send its lead in water results to DCPS. If there are actionable levels, DGS takes the water device off line and DCPS sends a letter to the principals, which is to be disseminated to the school community.

–2,727 water devices at DC charter schools have been tested since spring. It is not clear if that testing will be done annually going forward; how the filters that have been paid for this year by the city for those charter schools will be used going forward; and who will pay for new ones as needed.

–The fact that some devices tested higher in a second retest suggests that the lead in the fixtures themselves can flake off randomly, making a single round of tests likely to give unfairly reassuring results.

–Many DC kids who are eligible for Medicaid are not getting blood lead tests.

–There are language access barriers to communicating lead in water issues.

–A parent from West Education Campus counted 1,832 devices in DCPS alone that dispensed water with lead levels lower than the federal standard (15 ppb) but higher than the new city standard (1 ppb). She asked that until filters are installed, all these devices be turned off.

–Blood tests of kids at affected schools occurred months after the water consumption and thus had the potential to miss the problem.

–The federal standard for lead in bronze water fixtures was revised in 2014, ensuring less lead used (but not eliminating it).

–There is supposed to be a facilities assessment of all charter schools; this will be discussed today, July 11, at a council hearing on new legislation governing the master facilities plan, which apparently also calls for identifying and addressing lead and asbestos hazards in schools and giving them an “environmental report card.”

–Lead in water results for city libraries were posted June 21.

–Despite having actionable levels of lead in water, some devices in schools were neither shut off nor given filters (i.e., at Sousa MS).

–Deputy city administrator Kevin Donahue committed to funding all testing for lead in water in all public schools on a “random” basis.

–Not clear if childcare facilities will have testing, as many are privately owned and operated.

and, perhaps unsurprisingly,

–There are no lead in water experts in any city agency

Council members present did ask a number of good questions whose answers remain unknown, such as a clearly outlined policy of principal notification; a more usable data format for reporting drinking water test results; city-wide efforts to get information out in a timely manner via TV and newspaper ads; ensuring that “Do Not Drink” signs are actually effective for children who cannot read and who on a hot summer day might easily just put their mouths to the nearest source of water (outdoor hose, sink faucet, etc.); and a new standard for materials used in the plumbing of new buildings.

(The last is interesting inasmuch as the head of the city agency in charge of all DCPS renovations did not appear to have information about lead-free plumbing fixtures. But a quick google search yielded this document issued by the EPA concerning how to identify lead-free plumbing fixtures. And three states—California, Maryland, and Vermont—have recently passed legislation to reduce the amount of lead in plumbing fixtures for drinking and cooking in those states. Just a guess, but maybe someone in those states might know something about lead-free plumbing fixtures?)

Regardless of one’s thoughts about public buildings in the capital of the richest nation on earth having any water devices that require a “Do Not Drink” sign, huge disparities in testing, remediation, and future management of water devices remain.

Take just the recently posted results for charter schools: each school as its own entity contracts with different testing agencies, each with different protocols (re-testing, flushing, etc. are not specified), different measurements (micrograms versus milligrams), and different numbers of devices tested (some schools had only a few devices tested), with no apparent consistency on labeling to ensure the device is clearly identified.

At least I am not alone in being angry: Saying he was “completely appalled” by the calm demeanor of city officials, including the (few) council members present, Jeff Canady of We Act Radio called for the US attorney’s office as well as the attorney general of DC to investigate lead in school water as a criminal matter.

Certainly, there is ample precedent for stepping up concern: A prominent legal firm just filed a class action lawsuit against Philadelphia for poor lead in water testing protocols that allow high levels to go unobserved.

Then there is the lawsuit, still ongoing, against DC’s water authority, for the lead in water scandal in 2004, brought by parents of children who were allegedly harmed by exposure to lead in DC’s water.

Not to mention the outrage generated by the poor reporting of lead in school water in Portland, Oregon (causing some parents to call for the ouster of the superintendent); the ongoing health crisis caused by Flint, Michigan’s, water; and lead in water in Newark, NJ, schools.

Come to think of it, maybe being outraged is the only reasonable stance to take.

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