Two D.C. Council members recently held joint public oversight hearings this week on the testing of lead levels in public facilities to alert residents and others of concerns about water safety.
The hearings at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest continued a vigilant approach some city officials have since the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, a situation that District officials and those in other communities desperately hope to avoid.
“It is well-documented and widely reported that the impact of lead has grave consequences on a child’s mental and physical development,” said David Grosso, an at-large Council member who chairs its education committee. “Parents, teachers, our community and, most importantly, our young people deserve the assurance that their government is acting in their best interest. This is an opportunity to discuss the results of the most recent round of testing and the future plans and protocol to ensure we are constantly keeping an eye on this matter.”
The most recent hearing, which took place Wednesday, June 22, followed the on-the-record questioning made by the Council to D.C. government officials during performance and budget oversight hearings regarding the environmental safety of public buildings, especially schools, libraries and recreation centers.
“We need full confidence that testing is reliable, results are reported to parents and the public, and immediate remediation is taken when required,” said Ward 3 Council member Mary M. Cheh, who chairs the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment.
Prior to the hearings, the D.C. Public Library noted that it had found an excessive amount of lead contamination in four of its libraries as city officials said they were lowing the maximum acceptable level of lead in public drinking water to make water standards in the District tougher than what’s required by the federal government.
Six water fountains and a sink in D.C. public libraries exceed the federal maximum lead contamination level of 15 parts per billion, according to an announcement by the library.
Elevated levels were found in water fountains at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the Lamond-Riggs and Southwest neighborhood libraries, and in a sink at Georgetown Neighborhood Library, according to a published report.
While six of the affected water sources tested slightly above the federal guidelines, a water fountain near the women’s restroom on the third floor of the MLK Library had a lead content at 192 parts per billion – more than 12 times the federal limit.
After lead contaminated water was discovered in water fountains in three elementary schools in April, the city tested 114 drinking water sources at 26 libraries. Library officials received the test results June 14 and shut down the seven contaminated sources that day, spokesman George Williams said.
Filters were installed on all seven sources and three were returned to service after a new round of testing found them to be beneath the 15 parts per billion limit.
But even with new filters, three water fountains at the MLK and Georgetown Neighborhood libraries do not meet the city’s new standard. Another 74 drinking fountains at libraries across the city were found to have lead levels greater than the new standard of 1 part per billion, library officials said.
They will all be taken out of service and remediated, Williams said.
“If the filter doesn’t create a safe level of lead in the water then an additional step will be taken,” said Williams, adding that officials are not sure of the cause of contamination. Remediation could include replacing piping or fountain parts.
Lead contamination in children has been linked to learning disabilities, impaired hearing, damage to the nervous system and slowed growth. In adults, it can lead to increased blood pressure, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems.
Officials said the city will install filters at all public schools, libraries and recreation centers by the end of the year, regardless of test results. Installing the filters and implementing the new limit will cost nearly $2 million initially and then $1.5 million annually to regularly test and maintain water sources, Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue said in a statement.
“Lead exposure in children is preventable, and we will be working diligently to set policy at our facilities that goes far beyond EPA standards,” Donahue said.