By Sam P.K. Collins
Earlier this year, the District branch of the NAACP launched a campaign urging D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council to reduce children’s exposure to lead, whether they’re at home or in school.
Since the turn of the century, based upon the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s initial efforts to replace lead pipes in the District, lead exposure has been a hot-button issue – especially in connection with school-aged children and expectant mothers. Both populations, when exposed to lead, remain at a high risk of developing health problems.
In an appeal to District leaders, NAACP Washington, D.C. Branch President Akosua Ali, along with nearly two dozen advocates, cited DC Water’s capital improvement plan that left 80% of lead replacement efforts in the hands of District residents who would be required to enroll in a government program.
The status quo, Ali said, places the administrative burden on lower-income and less-informed residents.
Ali has since championed legislation introduced by D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and six of her council colleagues. If passed, the Green New Deal for a Lead-Free DC Amendment Act ramps up the removal of hazardous lead service lines on private and public land while expanding the District’s lead remediation workforce via the D.C. Infrastructure Academy.
In the interim, Ali continues to urge the District government to bring lead removal programs to residents and increase access to water filters.
“It would be a safe analysis to state that [some of the] lead service lines go into our schools,” Ali said. “The government would have to look into clusters, blocks and communities. Infrastructure aside, the government has to bring the programs to the people.”
Looking into District Schools and Daycares
Legislation approved by the D.C. Council in 2017 designates 5 parts per billion (ppb) as the threshold for filter replacement and lead remediation in District schools but many advocates cite any kind of lead exposure as dangerous.
Lead exposure can damage a child’s brain and nervous system, which slows growth and development and increases the likelihood of learning and behavior issues. Adults exposed to lead often experience high blood pressure and problems with their brain, kidneys and reproductive organs. In recent years, advocates have deemed partial lead service line replacement projects conducted by DC Water as insufficient in stopping lead exposure.
The District’s estimated to have more than 28,000 lead or galvanized-iron pipes, all of which DC Water intends to replace by 2030.
Projects initiated by DC Water involve main water replacement, emergency repairs and D.C. Department of Transportation-related projects. In areas where DC Water doesn’t plan to do construction, property owners can enter two programs through D.C. Department of Energy and Environment to receive lead replacement services at a discount.
Since the passage of the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act, some District schools have undergone lead pipe replacement as part of capital improvement plans. A DC Department of General Services (DGS) representative said given the sporadic nature of high lead readings, the D.C. government has opted to collectively perform remediation across all District public school facilities.
Over the last five years, DGS has recorded 65 instances when drinking water in District schools had lead readings of more than 5 ppb. During the 2021-2022 academic year, only 10 devices in DCPS facilities tested higher than 5 ppb before the execution of lead remediation. After that procedure, none of the pipes tested beforehand had levels surpassing 5 ppb. DGS said that 70% of the devices with high lead level readings were based in Wards 7 and 8.
In situations when DGS detects high levels of lead in school drinking water, contractors shut off the water source, replace the filter and conduct another test. The process, most of which involves laboratory testing, takes two weeks. However, some advocates, like those representing Black Millennials 4 Flint, have questioned whether school officials erect signs near the contaminated water source informing students and community members about the lead reading.
Other issues of concern for Black Millennials 4 Flint member Michelle Mabson involve whether children are being tested for lead exposure and the degree to which officials have conducted lead readings in daycare and child development facilities located in single-family homes.
“If we know that lead is being ingested at schools, recreation centers, childcare facilities and homes, and we know the effects of lead and the neurocognitive harms, the question is if we’re testing children as often as we need,” Mabson said.
“The other question is what are we seeing in these schools with elevated levels where students are struggling?” Mabson added. “What’s the connection to lead? It does have a bearing on the educational outcomes in students. We can see that in some ways across the city where elevated lead levels can be detected.”
Lewis George said we can ill-afford to ignore the long-term effect of lead poisoning on children.
“Young people absorb four to five times as much lead as adults,” she said. “They are vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer the impacts on the development of their brain and nervous system. It comes in various ways with children who are left with behavioral and intellectual disabilities.”