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Posted at 10:44 PM ET, 12/14/2010

The CDC's message on lead water lines

By Christopher J. Portier, Atlanta

Last week, the scientific journal Environmental Research released the latest study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the health impact of lead in the Washington water supply [“D.C. water study sharpens view of lead threat,” Metro, Dec. 12].

While the study is new, its primary finding is not. It supports what the CDC has been saying since 2004: The presence of lead service lines increases blood lead levels in D.C. children.

Unfortunately, media reports continue to mistakenly suggest that the CDC’s opinion has changed. This may cause residents to miss the study’s more recent finding that partial lead pipe replacement does not reduce the risk for lead exposure.

In 2009, incoming CDC Director Tom Frieden ordered a new review; the CDC released preliminary data concerning partial lead pipe replacement to advocacy organizations, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (now D.C. Water), CDC-funded programs and the public in advance of this publication and has made these findings known since spring 2009. CDC also included its findings in its May 20 congressional testimony and in a June 27 Local Opinions commentary in The Post.

Elevated blood lead levels among D.C. children have fallen by half over the past five years, and they are now lower than the national average because the CDC and others identified these risks and began addressing them years ago.

The writer is director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

By Christopher J. Portier, Atlanta  | December 14, 2010; 10:44 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, environment, public health  
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Dear Mr. Portier:
When will the CDC recognize chloramine (the cause of the lead problems in Wash. D.C.) as a toxic substance. Not only does it leach lead from pipes and plumbing fixtures, but it can cause respiratory problems, digestive problems, and/or skin rashes. I had terrible skin problems while using chloraminated water and can no longer use our tap water. In addition, recent research is showing it to be many, many more times dangerous than chlorine. Please see for more information.
Beth Nord
Palo Alto, CA

Posted by: bnord | December 15, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: blogger421 | December 20, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

As someone who has been working on the issue of lead in DC's drinking water for several years, I feel compelled to offer Dr. Portier a few tidbits of advice:

1. Before you make any further public statements about lead at the tap and CDC's role in the District's fiasco, please actually read your agency's 2004 MMWR study ( When you do, you'll see that the CDC has not been saying since 2004 that "the presence of lead service lines increases blood lead levels in children." To the contrary, the 2004 study denied a link between contaminated water and blood lead levels, attributing all health harm to lead paint and dust in old housing.

2. Also please read the 2010 Congressional investigation of the 2004 CDC report, and the 2010 Congressional testimony of Virginia Tech Professor of Environmental Engineering, lead corrosion expert, and 2007 MacArthur Fellow Dr. Marc Edwards. These documents will help you avoid serious errors of fact that appear in your letter.

3. The Post is correct in saying that the CDC's statements about the link between lead-contaminated water and blood lead levels in DC have changed. Please stop blaming the public and the press for having "misunderstood" your agency's flawed 2004 report and its "no harm done" message, which Congress, prominent public health officials, and lead poisoning prevention advocates from across the country have requested you retract immediately.

4. Retract your 2004 report. It's absolutely misleading, even with all of the subsequent "clarifications" CDC has added. Your new paper is based on solid science and communicates what you now say are the agency's true conclusions about the subject.

5. Although CDC knew in late 2007 (or before) about the health risks of partial lead service lines, the agency's first public announcement came only in January 2010. This is not the kind of proactive release of preliminary data your letter purports occurred.

6. The new CDC paper contains several important conclusions that you fail to mention, including: that DC children were significantly harmed by lead contaminated drinking water in 2001-2004, that costly partial replacements of lead service lines not only do not help reduce water lead levels but probably make them worse, and that full or partial lead service lines increase the risk of elevated blood lead levels even when drinking water meets federal lead standards.

The CDC's latest study is commendable, but your defensive letter to the Washington Post is not. It's self serving and dishonest.

The only way for the CDC to finally fulfill its mission and protect US consumers from lead at the tap is to take responsibility for its past mistakes and put the public's health above short-sighted institutional priorities.

Ralph Scott

Posted by: kidsfirst1 | December 20, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

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