This Should Go over Like a Lead Balloon

Brewing in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Washington D.C. is a new public health scare that may soon reach beyond the beltway and into consumer and taxpayer pockets. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

At issue is the discovery of elevated levels of lead found in the district's drinking water, which has regulators poised to hike national drinking water regulations. While more stringent regulations won't improve public health much, they will cost some communities dearly.

Coverage in The Washington Post of the lead issue set policymakers and media in a tailspin.  Congress is considering beefing up the nation's drinking water law, regulators are mobilizing and the General Accounting Office is launching an investigation.  Craziest of all is coverage by a D.C. radio station, which at one point was broadcasting a “lead alert” every 30 minutes (and advertising this “alert” every 10 minutes or so) as if this were a national disaster.

But it's all a bunch of nonsense.

The science and the history related to lead exposure strongly indicate that lead in drinking water—even at levels that are multiple times higher than federal standards—do not warrant this frenzied reaction.  A recently released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study reinforces these findings.

It is true that high levels of lead can cause problems.  Humans absorb lead into their bodies mostly by ingestion, and risks are highest for children.  At high lead exposure levels acute poisoning can result, producing comas, convulsions, and even death.  Elevated lead levels can have an impact on IQ levels but the impact is generally small, according to a 2000 report produced by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).

Children with elevated levels might experience a drop in IQ of one to three points as a result.  Not surprisingly, such impacts are usually stronger in children with higher levels of lead in their blood.  ASCH notes that the vast majority of children have very low blood lead levels.

The removal of lead from gasoline and the elimination of lead-based paint have greatly reduced exposure for most Americans, which is why very few Americans are exposed at levels that cause any measurable health impacts.  Today, the main route for lead exposure among children is ingestion of lead-containing dusts and soil—not drinking water.  Much of the elevated exposures are among urban poor who live in homes with peeling lead-based paint.  Children who consume paint dust or chips are most likely the ones with higher than average lead exposure.  Exposure to lead through drinking water—even when lead levels are far above excessively cautious federally set standards—poses little risk.

Not surprisingly, the district government and the CDC discovered that every child they found with elevated lead levels in D.C. also lives in homes with pealing lead paint and/or lead-containing dust from renovations.  Based on tests of about 1,100 children, 14 children were found with elevated lead levels.  Six of these children didn't even live in homes with lead service lines.  Moreover, tests on about 200 people of all ages from homes with the highest lead levels in the water didn't find anyone with blood containing lead at levels of concern.

As Daniel R. Lucey, the district's interim chief medical officer, recently told The Washington Post, “We are not seeing any widespread lead toxicity attributable to the water in D.C.”

Ironically, a potential cause of increased lead in D.C. water might be federal drinking water regulations themselves.  Congressional mandates and subsequent EPA regulations have encouraged water treatment plants to switch from water disinfectants.  Many have replaced chlorine gas with liquid chlorine, which is more corrosive.  If that's what caused lead levels to rise in D.C., we can expect the hysteria to expand around the nation since numerous other communities have made this switch, and the EPA has recently commenced a nationwide search for communities with lead “problems.”

Bureaucrats and lawmakers will certainly use this situation as an excuse to flex their regulatory muscles.  As a result, consumers will likely end up paying more for their drinking water without gaining any measurable benefit as a result.  Meanwhile much more serious health related priorities will likely remain ignored.

(Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.)