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Environ Health Perspect. 2007 May;115(5):695-701. Epub 2007 Jan 17.

Elevated lead in drinking water in Washington, DC, 2003-2004: the public health response.

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Center for Risk Science and Public Health, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, School of Public Health and Health Services, George Washington University Medical Center, Washington, DC 20052, USA.

Erratum in

  • Environ Health Perspect. 2009 Aug;117(8):A342.



In 2003, residents of the District of Columbia (DC) experienced an abrupt rise in lead levels in drinking water, which followed a change in water-disinfection treatment in 2001 and which was attributed to consequent changes in water chemistry and corrosivity.


To evaluate the public health implications of the exceedance, the DC Department of Health expanded the scope of its monitoring programs for blood lead levels in children.


From 3 February 2004 to 31 July 2004, 6,834 DC residents were screened to determine their blood lead levels.


Children from 6 months to 6 years of age constituted 2,342 of those tested; 65 had blood lead levels > 10 microg/dL (the "level of concern" defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the highest with a level of 68 microg/dL. Investigation of their homes identified environmental sources of lead exposure other than tap water as the source, when the source was identified. Most of the children with elevated blood lead levels (n = 46; 70.8%) lived in homes without lead drinking-water service lines, which is the principal source of lead in drinking water in older cities. Although residents of houses with lead service lines had higher blood lead levels on average than those in houses that did not, this relationship is confounded. Older houses that retain lead service lines usually have not been rehabilitated and are more likely to be associated with other sources of exposure, particularly lead paint. None of 96 pregnant women tested showed blood lead levels > 10 microg/dL, but two nursing mothers had blood lead levels > 10 microg/dL. Among two data sets of 107 and 71 children for whom paired blood and water lead levels could be obtained, there was no correlation (r(2) = -0.03142 for the 107).


The expanded screening program developed in response to increased lead levels in water uncovered the true dimensions of a continuing problem with sources of lead in homes, specifically lead paint. This study cannot be used to correlate lead in drinking water with blood lead levels directly because it is based on an ecologic rather than individualized exposure assessment; the protocol for measuring lead was based on regulatory requirements rather than estimating individual intake; numerous interventions were introduced to mitigate the effect; exposure from drinking water is confounded with other sources of lead in older houses; and the period of potential exposure was limited and variable.

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