Screenshot 2015-12-21 14.01.45Florida Avenue row houses, Washington, DC, Josh Bassett Photography

In late 2000 to mid-2001, engineers and scientists responsible for the safety of drinking water in Washington, DC analyzed samples from consumer taps which suggested that lead-in-water levels were rising to hazardous concentrations in tens of thousands of city homes. When over 10% of collected samples exceed a 15 parts per billion (ppb) federal “lead action level,” as was the case in this sampling round, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) requires a series of rapid interventions, including lead service line replacements and intensive public outreach. Consumer education under the LCR is designed to ensure that developing fetuses, infants, and young children, who are especially vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of lead, can be protected from irreversible harm through simple interventions, such as flushing taps before drinking and cooking, avoiding hot tap water to mix infant formula, using filters, or consuming bottled water.

Rather than alert residents to the threat, as required by law and the first canon of civil engineering, the engineers and scientists at the water utility illegally invalidated several elevated lead-in-water measurements, and issued a false report claiming that the District’s water met all federal standards. The utility’s Chief Engineer, who had been kept abreast of concerns about large-scale contamination, later recalled that signing this report gave him a reassuring sense that the crisis had been “averted.” 

As the breadth and severity of the contamination grew to such an extent that lead levels in many homes measured in the hundreds of ppb and sometimes exceeded concentrations classifying water as “hazardous waste” (>5,000 ppb), the problem became impossible to conceal. In need of support, the water utility turned to engineers and scientists at city and federal agencies, asking for guidance on public outreach. Collaboratively, this group issued opaque messages about the hazard, which were consistently incomplete, overly technical, contradictory, and deliberately misleading. Indeed, during preparation for two public meetings scheduled to inform residents about the water utility’s imminent lead service line replacement program, the initiative’s Planning Supervisor, a water utility engineer, emailed her supervisor, also an engineer, to advise him that “the more detailed information that [the utility] can be ready to present on the payment aspects and work logistics, the less chance there is that people may focus on the health aspects [of the program].” She added, “One can only hope.”

It was nearly three years before DC residents were unambiguously informed about the nature of the problem with their drinking water. The news came not from the engineers and scientists entrusted with the protection of the public’s health, but from DC residents, independent scientists, and investigative reporters whose painstaking efforts to uncover the facts culminated in a January 2004 front-page article in the Washington Post. The event and its aftermath are popularly referred to as the 2001-2004 “DC Lead Crisis.”

Subsequent studies by Virginia TechVirginia Tech and the Children’s National Medical Center; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that for hundreds and possibly thousands of DC children, the warning came too late: the years of the contamination had been accompanied by an increase in both fetal deaths and cases of childhood lead poisoning. In temporarily “averting” an institutional “crisis” for the water utility and its partner agencies, the engineers and scientists in the case created a true public health crisis for the residents of Washington, DC – namely, prolonged exposure to a neurotoxin that is known to cause serious and irreversible health harm. In the process, engineers and scientists in multiple government agencies whose very mission it is to protect the public’s health failed to uphold their primary ethical obligation.

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