Thirst for leadership

March 25, 2004

WELCOME TO the nation's capital; please don't drink the water.

What a sorry state of affairs, when combined local and federal authorities have failed to ensure the safety of so basic a service as water. As Washington began sending thousands of water-filtering devices to its citizens this week, two area school systems discovered that fountains in some their buildings, too, have elevated levels of lead.

Baltimore is in no position to gloat. So far, only a handful of schools here have been permitted to resume using fountains and faucets -- more than a year after parents' complaints forced school officials to acknowledge they had failed to solve a decade-old problem of unacceptably high lead levels at some school taps.

The extent of the Washington-area water problems is still not fully known. In the district, the presumed cause is leaching from lead service pipes that connect buildings to the water supply. The water used by the district has a corrosive composition that prompts the leaching; over time, treating the water with a phosphate may reduce the problem, officials there say. A pipe replacement program is being addressed. More tests are planned for the D.C. schools.

Meanwhile, the cause of the high lead levels in Montgomery and Prince George's county schools is not yet known: They don't share the district's water source.

What's most troubling to families throughout the Washington region has been officials' initial response (they apparently did not learn from Baltimore's mistake).

In the district, too much time elapsed between the discovery of elevated lead levels and the issuing of detailed public warnings that would allow pregnant women and parents to make informed decisions. And it's hard to fathom why it took so long to get around to testing in the schools.

While it's true that the greater risk to most children is flaking lead-based paint in older homes, scientists have confirmed again and again that no amount of lead contamination is safe for fetuses and young children. Lead poisoning can stunt a child's growth and lower his or her IQ.

Certainly, D.C.-area school and health officials are wise not to fan a panic. They've ordered schools to flush fountains and taps four times a day. But is it any wonder that some parents have begun sending bottled water to school with their children? Perhaps if other jurisdictions were forced, as Baltimore schools were, to spend $50,000 a month on bottled water, they'd grasp the urgency that parents are feeling.

Not since the 1980s and early 1990s have some area school systems tested their water for lead; facilities are checked for asbestos, but regular tests of school drinking water are not required by law. There are many lessons for state and federal officials to take from this nightmare now affecting schools in Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George's and Washington. Requiring regular lead testing in schools would be a fine place to start.

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