Elevated Lead in Drinking Water in Washington, DC, 2003-2004: The Public Health Response

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND: In 2003, residents of the District of Columbia (DC) experienced an abrupt rise in lead levels in drinking water, which followed a change in water-disinfection treatment in 2001 and which was attributed to consequent changes in water chemistry and corrosivity.

OBJECTIVES: To evaluate the public health implications of the exceedance, the DC Department of Health expanded the scope of its monitoring programs for blood lead levels in children.

METHODS: From 3 February 2004 to 31 July 2004, 6,834 DC residents were screened to determine their blood lead levels.

RESULTS: Children from 6 months to 6 years of age constituted 2,342 of those tested; 65 had blood lead levels > 10 [micro]g/dL (the "level of concern" defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the highest with a level of 68 [micro]g/dL. Investigation of their homes identified environmental sources of lead exposure other than tap water as the source, when the source was identified. Most of the children with elevated blood lead levels (n = 46; 70.8%) lived in homes without lead drinking-water service lines, which is the principal source of lead in drinking water in older cities. Although residents of houses with lead service lines had higher blood lead levels on average than those in houses that did not, this relationship is confounded. Older houses that retain lead service lines usually have not been rehabilitated and are more likely to be associated with other sources of exposure, particularly lead paint. None of 96 pregnant women tested showed blood lead levels > 10 [micro]g/dL, but two nursing mothers had blood lead levels > 10 [micro]g/dL. Among two data sets of 107 and 71 children for whom paired blood and water lead levels could be obtained, there was no correlation ([r.sup.2] = -0.03142 for the 107).

CONCLUSIONS: The expanded screening program developed in response to increased lead levels in water uncovered the true dimensions of a continuing problem with sources of lead in homes, specifically lead paint. This study cannot be used to correlate lead in drinking water with blood lead levels directly because it is based on an ecologic rather than individualized exposure assessment; the protocol for measuring lead was based on regulatory requirements rather than estimating individual intake; numerous interventions were introduced to mitigate the effect; exposure from drinking water is confounded with other sources of lead in older houses; and the period of potential exposure was limited and variable.

KEY WORDS: biomonitoring, blood lead level, children's environmental health, drinking water, lead exposure, population surveillance, screening program. Environ Health Perspect 115:695-701 (2007). doi:10.1289/ehp.8722 available via http://dx.doi.org/ [Online 17 January 2007]

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In this article we report the findings of a lead-screening program instituted for residents of the District of Columbia in response to increased lead levels in drinking water in 2003 and 2004. The results are of interest as a population survey of residents, an evaluation of the public health implications of a lead exceedance, and a case study in emergency response to a drinking-water event.

A number of advisories and interventions were introduced at the time in order to reduce exposure and to mitigate any public health risk that would result. Among the responses mounted by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DCWASA) and the DC Department of Health (DOH) was a screening program for elevated blood lead levels that targeted young children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers.

Washington, DC, has had a well-documented problem with lead exposure associated with residual lead paint and contaminated house dust in older housing, mostly built before 1950 and never rehabilitated. Lead levels in the blood of children in the district have been falling for many years and continued to fall through the period of elevated lead in the drinking-water distribution system (Stokes et al. …