The ongoing hysteria about lead in Washington, D.C.’s drinking water is much ado about nothing, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though that’s no surprise, the controversy does have some value ― it demonstrates the potential unintended consequences of implementing junk science-based environmental policy.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires that D.C.’s Water and Sewer Authority test the tap water in residences annually. Test results released in January 2004 indicated that a majority of the homes tested had water lead levels (search) above the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion.

The results launched a blizzard of news reports in Washington, D.C., alarming the public about lead causing “serious damage to the brain, nervous system, kidneys and red blood cells, particularly in children, babies and fetuses.”

Lawsuits are about to be filed alleging that WASA has known of the lead “problem” since 2001 but sought to conceal the findings and took inadequate steps to protect residents. The D.C. government is seeking $26 million from the federal government to cover expenses related to the so-called “problem.”

Despite this three-ringed media-lawyer-government circus, there is no actual “problem.”

No health effects whatsoever have been attributed to the lead in D.C.’s water. This is hardly a surprise since the already very low blood lead levels among D.C. residents overall have dropped steadily for years, according to the CDC.  

During 2000-2003, for example, the percentage of people living in homes with lead service pipes and with blood lead levels higher than 10 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dl) ― the current federal standard for lead in blood ― dropped from 9.8 percent to 7.6 percent. 

Keep in mind that the federal standard of 10 μg/dl is not even a health-based standard.

The lead standard (search) has been driven arbitrarily low by activists whose ultimate goal is to have any measurable blood lead level declared as unsafe. Until 1991, the federal standard was 25 μg/dl. It was reduced to 10 μg/dl by activists fueled with dubious research. Medical treatment for “lead poisoning” (search) isn’t recommended until blood lead levels exceed 45 μg/dl, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Though blood lead levels have been generally declining among D.C. residents, there was a slight and temporary uptick in blood lead levels among D.C. residents with lead service pipes during late 2000.

D.C. officials attribute this uptick to a change in the drinking water disinfection method used at that time.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for much of the D.C. area’s drinking water, switched in late 2000 from disinfecting drinking water with chlorine (search) to disinfecting with chloramine, (search) a combination of chlorine and ammonia.

The ammonia, however, made the water more corrosive, which in turn may have increased the level of lead leaching from the pipes into the water. Oops.

Why would the corps switch from chlorine to chloramine?

Industrial and commercial use of chlorine has long been targeted by environmentalists, who have been trying for decades to generate concern that chlorine causes cancer in humans.

Despite the utter absence of scientific data indicating that chlorinated drinking water (search) is a cancer risk, environmental activists were able in the 1980s to convince the EPA that drinking water disinfected with chlorine ― one of the greatest public health measures of all time ― posed a cancer threat. The EPA has since been trying to eliminate chlorine as a disinfectant, discouraging its use in favor of other less effective and more expensive options.

In one infamous consequence of the EPA’s efforts against chlorine, an early-1990s outbreak of cholera (search) in Peru (1 million cases with 10,000 deaths) was exacerbated because Peruvian officials stopped disinfecting their drinking water with chlorine.

Now, we find that the EPA’s senseless efforts to dechlorinate America may have inadvertently caused an increase in blood lead levels. Though I don’t find the increase worrisome, lead hysterics claim that all lead exposures in children should be eliminated.  

I suppose the EPA can reasonably claim “no harm, no foul” with respect to the unintended consequences of its actions ― this time. This sort of post-hoc rationalization, however, isn’t a substitute for relying on sound science in the first place.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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