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The EPA finds too much lead in D.C. tap water.

When the home inspector told Rebecca Epstein that the water line to the house she was buying was made of lead, Epstein wasn’t overly concerned. The house, in American University Park, was built in 1929, and plenty of old houses around the District draw their water through lead plumbing. In fact, one out of every seven houses in D.C. is connected to the city’s water mains with lead service lines.

Still, her plumber suggested that she test the tap water, and the 32-year-old Epstein sent off a sample to a private lab. The results were alarming, she says: “That lab said, ‘Don’t drink your water. Don’t cook with your water. Don’t swallow it after you brush your teeth.’”

After getting the results, Epstein contacted officials at the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA). They asked for two additional samples, to be tested by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Washington Aqueduct Laboratory. Forty-four days later—after WASA waited three weeks for broken lab equipment to be fixed, according to laboratory manager Elizabeth Turner—Epstein got a second set of results: In one sample, the lead level was .265 milligrams per liter of water, nearly 18 times the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action level of .015 milligrams per liter, above which water providers are required to take extra steps to control lead. The other sample, which was taken after Epstein let water run to flush the pipes, had six times the EPA action level.

Epstein’s results are not unique. For the yearlong monitoring period ending this past June, WASA found that the average lead concentration in the water of homes with lead service lines was five times the EPA’s limit. An EPA spokesperson says children and pregnant women are the groups most at risk for health problems when exposed to lead concentrations above the action level. Possible consequences include delays in physical and mental development in children, and kidney problems and high blood pressure in adults.

“We didn’t expect that kind of result,” says George Rizzo, the environmental scientist with the EPA who oversees the D.C. drinking-water program. “Even in the previous years when they exceeded the action levels, they didn’t exceed it at those levels.”

Rizzo suspects that drought conditions over the past year have contributed to the high readings. “The Potomac River alkalinity levels are higher than normal, which limits the amount of lime that the Washington Aqueduct can add,” he says. “As a consequence, the pH of the water is lower.” The increased acidity of the District’s drinking water could mean greater amounts of leaching in lead service lines, brass fixtures that contain lead, and lead-based solder, which was used to connect copper pipes in household plumbing prior to 1987.

Service lines begin on city property, then run onto private land. As a result, the responsibility for replacing the lead ones is divided between District government and property owners. D.C. law requires homeowners who undertake major renovations to replace any lead pipes that may be on their property. And Libby Lawson, a WASA representative, says that when WASA uncovers lead lines while doing routine repairs on city land, it replaces them.

But thanks to this year’s exceeding of EPA standards, WASA now has to undertake a more methodical approach, digging up and replacing 7 percent of the District’s lead service lines annually until lead readings drop below the action level. That mandate, however, doesn’t extend to the parts of the pipes on private property. “In order for the program to be effective, they would need the property owner to replace their portion of the line,” says Rizzo.

WASA is also required to begin a campaign to educate the public on this year’s lead results. Lawson says the agency is planning to release additional information to the public by the end of October.

Epstein says contractors have estimated that it will cost $5,000 to replace her share of the lead pipe on her property and up to $18,000 to get the line redone all the way to the water main, which requires multiple city permits. Seema Bhat, the manager of WASA’s water-quality program, has told Epstein she will recommend that American University Park be put on a list of neighborhoods to consider for lead service line replacement.

“We’re going to do everything the D.C. government has told us to do to improve the problem,” Epstein says. “But we know that ultimately if D.C. doesn’t replace the pipes, we’re still at risk, and we’re not going to touch the water.” CP