DC Water’s Own Data Suggest Widespread Lead Contamination
President Joe Biden said, “What do you think would happen if they found out all the lead pipes are up in the Capitol?” Unfortunately, that's not far from the truth. Only about four miles north of the Capitol, my neighborhood in Washington DC does contain lead pipes, and like lead pipes throughout the country, the ones in Washington DC leach. In 2004, DC experienced the nation's most severe lead water contamination crisis. The vast majority of those pipes are still in the ground and contribute to widespread contamination. Paradoxically, due to a confusing and inadequate system of safeguards, the utility's limited data suggest that Washington DC is in compliance with federal drinking water regulations for lead.
As NRDC’s coalition partners Yanna Lambrinidou and Paul Schwarz of the Campaign for Lead Free Water (“the Campaign”) point out the rules that control lead in drinking water (known as the Lead and Copper Rule, or LCR) are an Optical Illusion. While DC Water (formerly known as DC WASA) collects limited data that suggest the utility is in compliance with this federal rule, when the Campaign analyzed the utility’s data from 2019 and 2020, they found that 89 and 85 percent of the homes sampled (which are selected for being “high risk”) had water with unsafe levels of lead.
Under the regulation that is supposed to protect us from lead in water (the Lead and Copper Rule or LCR), Washington DC has excellent water quality. But upon examination, the water utility’s own data is alarming. Most homes the utility tested for LCR compliance purposes had lead-in-water contamination. Many more homes where DC residents sought testing independently also had lead flowing out of their taps, including concerning lead spikes. The degree of contamination currently present in Washington DC is acceptable under the LCR for not only the nation’s capital, but also for all communities across the US. In other words, the current LCR is an optical illusion like the picture above. From a regulatory perspective, a community’s water can meet all water quality standards and water utilities can declare it “safe.” From a public health perspective, however, the contamination can pose a clear and serious public health risk to residents who are left uninformed and unequipped to protect themselves from exposures.
The Lead and Copper Rule is a confusing regulation that doesn’t do enough to protect health, but we have a chance to fix it. With a renewed Lead and Copper Rule that, for example, required the removal of all lead pipes in 10 years, we can put an end to the lead-in-water crisis in DC once and for all.