Columbia Heights, one of the Washington, D.C. neighborhoods where drinking water contained high levels of lead.
A Congressional investigation found twice as many Washington D.C. children had high blood lead levels during the city's water crises than the Centers for Disease Control previously reported. The data was used by the agency to reassure city residents that lead leached into drinking water wouldn't be harmful. Congressman Brad Miller speaks with host Jeff Young about the mistake and what it’s meant for cities across the country.
YOUNG: In the nation’s capital, a well-intentioned change to the city’s water system eight years ago accidentally tainted some residents’ water with lead. The dangerous neurotoxin leached out of old pipes over a three-year period.
The full extent of that lead exposure is just coming to light, and the findings raise questions about the behavior of one of the country’s foremost health agencies, the Centers for Disease Control. Congressional investigators now say the number of children with high levels of lead in their blood was far higher than CDC had reported.
North Carolina Democrat Brad Miller chairs the House subcommittee doing that investigation. Congressman Miller says CDC based their conclusions on incomplete data.
MILLER: It turned out that there were a whole lot of missing tests and a lot of them showed elevated blood levels in children – some to alarming levels. And it was actually well more than half – it was almost two and a half times as many elevated blood level results for children.
YOUNG: So you found 486 children with elevated lead levels in their blood?
MILLER: Right, and the CDC’s report had been 193. But more than that CDC had sponsored a published article in a learned journal that said that, “you know, funny thing – really high lead levels in the drinking water, but it’s not showing up as elevated lead levels in the blood. So there’s really not much to worry about.”
YOUNG: So CDC put out a paper saying; “No indication D.C. residents have blood lead levels above the CDC levels of concern.” I guess what you’re saying is they just didn’t have the data to back that up.
MILLER: No. And they knew they didn’t have the data to back that up. They knew that there was this unexplained precipitous drop in the number of blood lead level tests that had been reported to them, from 16,000 to 9,000 from 2002 to 2003. And they did not pursue the obvious question of why there were so few blood level tests for 2003 when in the previous years it had been almost twice as many tests. And they published an analysis that said, “you know, surprisingly enough there doesn’t appear to be a relationship between elevated lead in drinking water and elevated lead in blood,” when they knew that that data was wrong and they knew that that study would be picked up and widely published. And as a result of that, the pressure was off in Washington and in other parts of the country; local government that had high lead levels in their drinking water supply didn’t act to reduce it because of the CDC study.
YOUNG: So the implications here go beyond just D.C. residents not getting adequate information about the potential health risk. This goes to other cities.
MILLER: Yes, and that includes New York, and Seattle have had elevated lead levels in their drinking water more than the Safe Water Drinking Act allows, but because of the CDC study and analysis they decided it wasn’t that big a deal.
YOUNG: And that’s a reasonable reaction I think by other health officials because, hey, it’s the CDC, right?
YOUNG: We can trust them.
MILLER: You think the CDC is the leading authority on this kind of thing in the world.
YOUNG: Does this look to you like an honest mistake by CDC or something else going on here?
MILLER: Well we’re gonna pursue this. We’re gonna find out what happened to the missing data, because there’s like 7,000 results missing. And we’ve found a lot, but somehow thousands of results got dropped and well more than 200 elevated blood level results got dropped. And we’re gonna find out what happened to the missing data. And we’re gonna find out why the CDC didn’t pursue it when there was obviously reason to suspect that the data wasn’t right. We’re gonna continue to pursue what happened here.
YOUNG: And do you expect you will have a hearing on this?
MILLER: We will having hearings probably in September, yes, when Congress comes back into session next month. This is not the first time our subcommittee has looked at CDC. And they have had a tendency in recent years, the Bush years basically, to be nonchalant about the effect of environmental exposures on public health. And I think that CDC has world-class scientists. There are people who are devoted to the mission of CDC. But it’s pretty clear from this and from a lot of other instances that CDC really needs new leadership and a new culture. And I hope they’re getting that now.
YOUNG: What about those – we’re talking about nearly 500 children in D.C. who had high lead levels in that year that you’ve found anyway in 2003. Do we know what’s become of them?
MILLER: I don’t think so. But that would be a useful follow up—is trying to find those almost 500 kids and find out how they’re doing. And that’s of the 13,000 or so, 14,000 or so that had the blood test for lead. But presumably there were thousands and thousands more than that who were at that vulnerable age who were exposed. And I have thought about this and wondered what I would think if I were a parent in Washington during this period and I was relying upon the CDC to make sure that my child was not exposed to a public health risk because of environmental exposure. I’d be … apoplectic. Some of these kids had more than six times what is the level of concern for lead in the blood. And the result can be a permanent loss in IQ, motor coordination and ability to communicate. And parents in Washington felt they didn’t have to worry because they trusted the CDC.
YOUNG: Congressman Brad Miller chairs the House Science Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. Thanks very much for your time.
MILLER: Thank you.
YOUNG: We contacted the CDC – they say they haven’t seen the report from Congressman Miller.
Their statement reads in part – “CDC’s key point was that communities should be alerted when they change the chemistry in their public water systems to ensure that lead concentrations in drinking water remain below the EPA action level.”
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