Lead-Free Drinking Water in DC Public Schools

Lead-Free Drinking Water in DC Public Schools

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Petition to
Director, District of Columbia Department of General Services Greer Johnson Gillis

Why this petition matters

Started by Hannah Donart

May 10, 2018

Greer Johnson Gillis, Director

District of Columbia Department of General Services

2000 14th Street, NW, 8th Floor

Washington, DC 20009

RE: Petition to Revise the Protocol for Lead Testing Established Under the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Act of 2017

Dear Ms. Gillis,

     We submit this letter of petition to the District of Columbia’s Department of General Services (DGS). We are requesting review and revision of the DGS water filtration and testing protocol published on September 28, 2017, in compliance with the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017, DC Code 22-0125.[1]


     The Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017 gives DGS the authority to establish testing protocols and filtering procedures to protect children in DC from lead exposure in drinking water sources in public and charter schools, childcare facilities, and Department of Public Recreation (DPR) facilities including recreation centers and libraries.[2] According to DGS, they have developed water filtration and testing protocols based on recommendations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP).[3] However, there are some inconsistencies and shortcomings in DGS’ interpretation and implementation of the new regulations. In addition, recently reported spikes in lead found in District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) drinking water and a lack of timely communication to caregivers and the community highlight the need for more coordination, transparency and oversight of the responsible agencies including DGS, DCPS, DPR and Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE). The following sections highlight (1) proposed revisions aimed at achieving these goals, (2) the historical context of the problem (background and health impacts), and (3) the rationale behind the revisions.


      We recommend that DGS’ regulations be amended as follows:

  •  In addition to “…all water fountains and water coolers and all sinks in break rooms, early childhood education (ECE) classrooms, and health suites in DCPS building and DPR recreation centers,” all sinks accessible to children ages 0-6 must be tested and filtered.[4] [See Water Filtration and Testing Protocol, 9/28/2017, section “General and Reference Material,” third paragraph]
  • Apply quarterly testing schedules if there is a history of detectable lead levels in the facility. [See Water Filtration and Testing Protocol, 9/28/2017, section “Water Sample Collection Plan,” 1. a.]
  • Conduct monthly testing of facilities undergoing active construction while children are on site. [See Water Filtration and Testing Protocol, 9/28/2017, section “Water Sample Collection Plan,” 1. b.]
  • Update public record keeping of lead service lines on DCPS, DPR, and childcare facilities.
  • Conduct environmental risk assessments before and during the renovation or construction of new public facilities and remediate any lead pipes found. If public side pipes contain lead, work with DC Water, DCPS, and DGS to replace both the public and private side.
  • Send letters to families and the affected community explicitly stating test results of all drinking water sources with detectable lead levels in the water below and above the 5 ppb threshold level in accordance with the timeline set forth by the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017. [See Water Filtration and Testing Protocol, 9/28/2017, section “Communication to DCPS Parents, Staff, and Stakeholders,” 8. c.]
  • Install filters at end-use points rather than internal to the drinking water fixture and replace as needed based on flow rate. [See Water Filtration and Testing Protocol, 9/28/2017, section “Actionable Levels and Definitions,” fourth paragraph]


     The District of Columbia  has had a regrettable history of high lead levels in drinking water, including the drinking water of public schools.  The extent of the problem has been known since at least 2000 and new reports have emerged as recently as 2016. In 2000 Washington Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), now known as DC Water, changed a component of the chemical water treatment of the District of Columbia drinking water supply from chlorine to chloramine.[4] This chemical change was initiated due to an EPA regulation, the Disinfectant Byproduct Rule (DBPR), which was designed to protect the public from harmful byproducts in drinking water.[5] This altered the pH of the water composition, decreasing the accumulation of mineral coating that protected lead pipes in the system from leaching. This resulted in lead levels much higher than the EPA Lead and Copper Rule threshold of 20 ppb for residences and facilities served by public water systems.[6] According to records made public by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, one source in a DCPS school tested higher than 7,500 ppb during this period.[7] To make matters worse, WASA conducted tests in 2000 and was aware of the high lead levels, but did not mitigate the problem until 2004 following the publication of an investigative report by the Washington Post.[8] Due to public outrage in 2004, WASA began distributing filters and blood tests to DC residents. They also started treating the water with orthophosphate to create a protective, leach resistant layer in the pipes, but this took several years to build up and become effective.

        Meanwhile, in an effort to quell the public’s concerns over aging lead service lines, WASA began a lead pipe remediation project in the District that was expected to be completed by 2010.[9] Unfortunately, this exacerbated the problem. While tax dollars covered the public side replacement of the lead service lines, private side replacement of the lines was not funded by the city. WASA offered to replace the private side at the cost of around $3000 per home, but most owners declined.[10] When the replacement occurred on the pubic side, the lead pipes on the private side were disturbed causing higher lead concentration in the water supply of those locations. Eventually the EPA intervened and halted the program in 2009.[11]

        Most recently in 2015 after testing 3,400 sources in schools throughout the District, DGS detected 17 water sources that did not meet the District’s regulatory standards, which were then 15 ppb.[12] Although these sources were turned off, DGS failed to report the results to parents and caregivers. A year later high lead levels were detected in three DCPS schools in northeast and southeast D.C., two of which had recently been modernized (see link).[13] The communities at these schools later discovered that water sources in these facilities had tested high the previous year and they were not informed. This renewed a sense of public distrust in the agencies responsible for monitoring lead levels in public schools. This also brought to light the need for greater oversight of school modernization projects and comprehensive environmental risk assessments to evaluate the need for lead pipe remediation.

Health Impacts

         During the early 2000s children in D.C. were found to have over four times the threshold limit of lead in their blood, which raised public concerns over the many adverse health effects for children in the District.[14] Fetuses, babies, and young children are the most vulnerable populations associated with lead exposure due to brain development and irreversible lifetime neurological effects sustained after exposure. Exposure to lead in very high doses can lead to acute lead encephalopathy and even mortality.[15] In addition, survivors of such acute exposure often suffer permanent brain damage. Low-dose chronic lead exposures can also do permanent neurological damage and are often not diagnosed until long after the exposure has occurred and the damage is irreversible. In the U.S., subclinical central nervous system symptoms are more common than symptoms of acute toxicity.[16]  These symptoms vary among individuals, but may include cognitive, behavioral, and physical disabilities. Studies have demonstrated an association between low-level lead exposure and lowered IQ, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, hearing and balance problems, aggression, kidney problems, and hypertension later in life.[17] Lead has also been found to interfere in the absorption of vitamin D and iron leading to growth delays.[18]


I. Expanding the definition of “a Drinking Water Source” to include any source accessible to children ages 0-6

     The Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017 states that a drinking water source is defined as “…a source of water from which a person can reasonably be expected to consume or cook with the water originating from the source.”[19] DGS has interpreted this to mean “drinking water sources specifically identified by school leaders and DPR managers, including all water fountains and water coolers and all sinks in break rooms, early childhood education (ECE) classrooms, and health suites in DCPS building and DPR recreation centers.”[20] However, children in ECE classes are not confined to their classrooms and often use bathrooms in other parts of the school when they attend specialized classes such as art classes and physical education, and also during lunch. It is likely that preliterate three and four-year-old children will not understand and abide by do not drink decals placed above these untested and unfiltered sink faucets. Additionally, it is common for children attending DCPS schools to carry water bottles that can easily be filled from any water source.  Accordingly, it can be reasonably expected that such children will consume water from those sources. Furthermore, the law allows for school leaders and DPR managers to assist in identifying such sources, but these requests are not always honored by DGS, as was the case in January of 2018 with Maury Elementary School when sinks in cafeteria/gym bathrooms were identified as potential drinking water sources, but DGS and DCPS refused to test or filter them (see appendix A for email request). The Maury PTA then funded testing and the results found that two of the sources were above actionable levels at 9 ppb and 7.1 ppb on the first draw (see attachment). Therefore, DGS currently is not adequately protecting the most vulnerable populations from potential lead exposure through all drinking water sources. Thus, the definition for what constitutes a “drinking water source” should also include all bathroom sinks that preliterate children ages 0-6 use on a regular basis.

II. More frequent lead testing of drinking water sources in facilities with known lead problems or where service lines have potentially been disturbed by construction

     Close monitoring of facilities with known lead service lines or with a record of any detectable lead levels should occur on a quarterly rather than annual basis. The levels of lead detected in a single source can change throughout the course of a year and are dependent on many factors. Seasonal changes, water temperature, degradation of the pipes, and changes in the chemistry of treated water all can contribute to lead leaching into drinking water sources at different rates and amounts.[21] Construction or other disturbances can also contribute to increased lead levels found in water sources.[22] When there is ongoing construction near the location of water lines there should be close monitoring of water quality to prevent harmful exposures. One example of this is Maury Elementary School, which is currently using a swing space on Eliot-Hine Junior High campus while its school is undergoing modernization. Students ranging in age from 3-11 years are taught in trailers where water pipes connecting to the service lines were recently installed. In January, water samples were taken and one source was found to have levels above the District’s threshold of 5 ppb (see link). In addition, the street directly behind the campus has had ongoing construction to install underground electrical lines and the junior high is slated to start renovations this summer (2018), which will continue throughout the school year.[23] Regardless, when asked to reevaluate testing protocol at this site, DGS refused stating that there was no reason to believe the ongoing construction was posing a problem. Greater caution, however, is necessary to reduce the risk of lead exposure and closer monitoring is clearly warranted in circumstances such as this.

III. Updating public records of lead service lines in childcare facilities, DCPS and DPR facilities and conducting regular environmental risk assessments

        There is an interactive map on D.C. Water’s website, which has all available records of material of private and public side service lines in D.C.[24] However, there are data gaps. There is no official record of the material on many of DCPS and DPR properties. In the instance of Maury Elementary School, neither the Eliot-Hine swing space nor permanent Maury Elementary School site has any official record of pipe material in the water distribution systems listed on DC Water. As mentioned above, Maury Elementary School is currently being modernized and if there is any lead in the service lines remediation should be considered. After inquiring on the material of the pipes under the construction site where the newly modernized school is being built and after submitting a FOIA request, a representative from DCPS emailed a response asserting that there is cast iron and copper piping in the water distribution system. However, there were detectable levels of lead found in one ECE classroom as recently as November 2017 and although they were below DC regulatory standards at 2 ppb, this is still above the recommended action level of the ACA and also indicates that there is lead somewhere in the system. It is unclear where the lead came from and it is important to point out that there was no confirmation that there were not lead pipes in the system. It would be prudent for DGS to develop protocol that included environmental assessments throughout the course of each project to avoid the situation that occurred in two newly modernized DSPS’, Minor Elementary and Payne Elementary Schools, located in southeast and northeast D.C.[25]

IV. Maintenance and replacement of filters based on flow rate and point-of-use filtering protocol is necessary to filter out all potential lead in a water distribution system

        Point-of-use filters are one of the last lines of defense and a primary public health prevention measure utilized to protect against lead exposure in drinking water. Lead pipes are not the only source of lead in the system. Drinking water fixtures can still be made with small, trace amounts of lead in them and solder used to join metal pipes can also contain limited amounts of lead. Under the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) solder and drinking water fixtures can contain up to 0.2% and 0.25% of lead respectively.[26] In an effort to reduce the risk of lead exposure further, DGS should install filters externally, at the point-of-use of the drinking water fixtures and maintain the filter based on flow-rate or usage of sources rather than on annual timelines in order to avoid reduced effectiveness.

V. Improved transparency through timely communication and disclosure of any lead detected in a drinking water source of a childcare, DCPS or DPR facility

In the past, WASA (now DC Water) and District agencies including DGS have fallen short of their role in communicating to the public the existing state of  lead exposure. There has been an ongoing lack of transparency and timely communication with the public. These agencies knew DC residents and school children had been exposed to drinking water with high lead level concentrations, but chose not to disclose this information to affected populations. Timely communication is necessary to reestablish transparency and trust. Under DGS’s protocol they explicitly state that all communication to families will be sent out within 2 business days of receipt of results in which any sources above the actionable level of 5 ppb have been reported.[27] This did not happen at the Maury swing space, however. DGS conducted lead testing on January 5, 2018 in which they found the preschool breakfast room to be at 14 ppb on first draw (see link). They turned off the source, re-filtered, and retested, but did not notify parent until January 18, 2018 (see Appendix B). DGS is not following their own communications protocol.

In addition, since even low levels of lead are not considered safe for young children’s cognitive development, DGS should be giving notice of any detectable traces of lead in drinking water sources in childcare facilities, DCPS and DPR facilities in the letters or other communications sent home. At present letters sent to families of DCPS schools only disclose information on drinking water sources testing above the 5 ppb standard. However, unless a parent looks at DGS’ website they will not be aware of any drinking water sources testing below the limit that their children still have access to. The 5 ppb actionable level is not based on scientific evidence or ACA recommended health standards, but rather on feasibility and is not protective enough to eliminate low-dose, chronic exposures. Therefore, parents and caregivers should have all of the information. Letters from DGS and DCPS should explicitly state that although the law only mandates an actionable level above 5 ppb, caution should be taken when any level of lead is detected in a drinking water source and any sources with detectable levels of lead below the actionable level should be identified.


According to the AAP and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there is no safe lead exposure level for young children and pregnant women.[28] Furthermore, the AAP recommends a 1 ppb threshold level for drinking water fountains in all schools.[29] Although D.C. has adopted more protective standards than the federal government, there is still potential for adverse health effects from both acute and chronic, low-dose lead exposure. Due to this, it is imperative that preventative public health measures such as identifying all potential sources of drinking water, environmental risk assessments, regular testing of facilities, and proper filtration practices take place in facilities where lead is a potential hazard. The benefits of lead exposure prevention far outweigh the costs. In one case study  the CDC  estimated that, “Between 2008 and 2010, CDC and its state programs helped reduce the number of children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels ≥ 1 μg/dL by nearly 3 million, saving $26–57 billion in lifetime productivity earnings alone [30].” The AAP further estimates the benefits of such interventions stating, “Preventing young children from ever coming into contact with the metal would have substantial population-wide benefits -- saving more than 20 million total IQ points among U.S. children and billions of dollars in annual costs associated with lead exposure [31].” In developing more comprehensive lead testing procedures under the Childhood Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017, DGS could assist in avoiding lead exposure all together in schools and minimize the associated long-term, irreversible health costs to children throughout the District.


 A. Email request

From: Richardson, Lisa D. (DCPS) <lisaD.richardson@dc.gov>

Date: Wed, Jan 24, 2018 at 5:15 PM

Subject: Re: Environmental Assessment/lead testing Re Maury Project

To: Hannah Donart <hannah.donart@gmail.com>

Cc: "Tuch, Joshua (DCPS)" <joshua.tuch@dc.gov>, Max Kieba <maxjkieba@gmail.com>, "Morris, Nathan (DCPS)" <nathan.morris@dc.gov>, "Albert-Garvey, Carolyne (DCPS)" <carolyne.albert-garvey@dc.gov>, "Koontz, Patrick (DCPS)" <Patrick.Koontz@dc.gov>, "Tyler, Shakera (DCPS)" <shakera.tyler@dc.gov>

Good afternoon, Ms Donart,

 Thank you for your patience as we worked to provide responses to your inquiries which appear below.  You expressed concerns regarding the filtering of bathroom sinks and possible misunderstanding of the stickers by students.  I understand and want you to know that we will work with Principal Albert-Garvey and her staff on clarifying that bathroom sinks (except those in ECE classrooms) are to be used for hand-washing only and not for filling water bottles or any other uses involving consumption.  

I hope the responses that follow answers your questions.  Please feel free to let me know if you have further concerns.


Lisa D. Richardson

Manager, Strategic School Operations

 Office of the Chief Operating Officer

Innovation and Systems Improvement

District of Columbia Public Schools

1200 First Street, NE

Washington, DC  20002

T  202.369.3233

E LisaD.Richardson@dc.gov

W http://dcps.dc.gov

B. Letter to Parents

January 18, 2018

Dear Maury Elementary School Parents and Families:

Throughout the course of the year, DC Public Schools (DCPS) and the DC Department of General Services (DGS) partner to coordinate lead testing of drinking water sources at all of our schools. On December 26, 2017, initial testing took place at the Maury Elementary swing space site located at Eliot-Hine Middle School, and I’m writing to share the results.

The water from the bathroom sink located in Classroom C103 tested for levels above 5 parts per billion (ppb) and was taken out of use, per DGS water filtration protocol.

While the levels detected are below the Environmental Protection Agency’s actionable level of 20 ppb, in an effort to exceed these standards, DC Government asserts that no level of lead above 5 ppb is safe for our students’ drinking water sources. As a result, DGS has followed and will continue to follow the District’s protocol to remediate these elevated levels.

Below are the steps that were taken:
• Installation of new filters;
• Plumbing check; and
• Retesting of water sources by certified water samplers.

Retesting results report that these actions were unsuccessful in bringing lead levels below 5 ppb, and the device will remain out of use while DGS pursues further remediation. Please be assured that we do not allow any water sources with elevated levels to be placed back into operation until remediation is

Lead has a long usage history within our country; the fight to limit, and eventually end, its exposure is ongoing. Please visit https://dcps.dc.gov/page/water-testing-lead to learn more about lead, read through DGS testing protocol, and review water filtration efforts. You may access Maury’s official water sampling results at http://dgs.dc.gov/page/water-sampling-results-dc-public-schools

If you have any additional questions, the Office of the Chief Operating Officer is a resource to families and can be reached via email at schooloperations.dcps@dc.gov or by phone at (202) 442-5192.


C. Douglas Hollis, Jr
Deputy Chief, School Operations 


[1] District of Columbia Department of General Services. (2017). Water Filtration and Testing Protocol. Retrieved from https://dgs.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dgs/publication/attachments/Water-Filtration-and-Testing-Protocol-9-28-17.pdf

[2] District of Columbia Council. (2017). D.C. Act 22-125. Retrieved from http://lims.dccouncil.us/Download/37185/B22-0029-SignedAct.pdf

[3] Supra note 1.

[4] Augenstein, Neal. (April 4, 2016). Before Flint: D.C.’s Drinking Water Crisis was Even Worse. Washington Top News. http://wtop.com/dc/2016/04/flint-d-c-s-drinking-water-crisis-even-worse/

[5] EPA. (Jan 19, 2017). Drinking Water Requirements for States and Public Water Systems. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/stage-1-and-stage-2-disinfectants-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules

[6] EPA. (Jan 19, 2017). Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Childcare Facilities. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/lead-drinking-water-schools-and-childcare-facilities

[7] Stein, Perry. (April 21, 2016). Elevated Lead Levels Found in Water at Three D.C. Schools. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/elevated-lead-levels-found-in-water-at-three-dc-schools/2016/04/21/05014212-07fc-11e6-b283-e79d81c63c1b_story.html?utm_term=.2411cc72800c

[8] Nakamura, David. (Jan. 31, 2004). Water in D.C. Exceeds EPA Lead Limit; Random Tests Last Summer Found High Levels in 4,000 Homes Throughout City. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost/doc/409548147.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Jan%2031,%202004&author=David%20Nakamura&pub=The%20Washington%20Post&edition=&startpage=A.01&desc=Water%20in%20D.C.%20Exceeds%20EPA%20Lead%20Limit;%20Random%20Tests%20Last%20Summer%20Found%20High%20Levels%20in%204,000%20Homes%20Throughout%20City

[9] Supra note 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Supra note 7.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Supra note 4.

[15] American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). Lead Exposure in Children. Retrieved from https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/lead-exposure/Pages/Lead-Exposure-in-Children.aspx

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Council of the District of Columbia. (July 31, 2017). D.C. Act 22-125. Retrieved from http://lims.dccouncil.us/Download/37185/B22-0029-SignedAct.pdf

[20] Supra note 1.

[21] EPA. (Jan. 19, 2017). Basic Information About Lead in Drinking Water. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water#getinto

[22] Ibid.

[23] DCPS. (March 9, 2018). Eliot-Hine Middle School: Project Overview. Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/a/dc.gov/dcps-school-modernizations/home/eliot-hine-middle-school

[24] D.C. Water. (2017). D.C. Water Service Information. Retrieved from https://geo.dcwater.com/Lead/

[25] DGS. (May 9, 2016). Payne Lead Water Test Results. Retrieved from https://dgs.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dgs/publication/attachments/Payne%20Lead%20in%20Water%20Results%20Summary_1.pdf See also DGS. (May 10, 2016). Miner Lead Water Test Results. Retrieved from https://dgs.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dgs/publication/attachments/Miner%20Lead%20in%20Water%20Results%20Summary_0.pdf

[26] EPA. (Jan. 19, 2017). Lead and Copper Rule. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/lead-and-copper-rule

[27] District of Columbia Department of General Services. (2017). Water Filtration and Testing Protocol. Retrieved from https://dgs.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dgs/publication/attachments/Water-Filtration-and-Testing-Protocol-9-28-17.pdf

[28] American Academy of Pediatrics. (June 20, 2016). With No Amount of Lead Exposure Safe for Children, American Academy of Pediatrics Calls for Stricter Regulations. Retrieved from  https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/With-No-Amount-of-Lead-Exposure-Safe-for-Children,-American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Calls-For-Stricter-Regulations.aspx See also Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (April 4, 2017). CDC’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/information/healthy_homes_lead.htm 

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.


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