Will DC Personal Injury Suits Spring from Lead-Tainted Water?

December 16, 2013, by Price Benowitz LLP

An abnormal increase in late-term miscarriages coincided with hazardous levels of lead in Washington's water supply from 2000 to 2003, according to a recent study.

At the same time other American cities were experiencing a decline in such miscarriages, Washington, DC mothers were suffering a pronounced increase in "fetal deaths", which are pregnancies lost after the twentieth week. The study's author, environmental engineer Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, said the statistical spike in Washington miscarriages first appeared in 2000, when the amount of lead in city water abruptly soared to a hazardous height rarely seen before in the United States. The extra lead was blamed on the DC Water and Sewer Authority, which had adopted a new water treatment method that inadvertently diverted dangerous amounts of lead through Washington faucets beginning in 2000. The tainted water also made its presence apparent on plumbing, corroding it faster than pre-2000 water had.

In a forthcoming article in Environmental Science and Technology, Edwards does not attribute the sudden increase in fetal deaths to the concurrent increase of lead in DC water. But he does set forth data that demonstrates a mathematical correlation between both sets of statistics. In 1999, fetal deaths in Washington occurred at the rate of 7.9 per 1,000 births. In 2000, when lead levels jumped, the rate of fetal deaths soared by 37 percent, to 10.9 deaths per 1,000 births. In 2001, the rate had climbed again, to 12.9 deaths. For every year lead levels were abnormally high, there were 20 to 30 additional fetal deaths, according to data analyzed by Edwards.

Normal ratios of births to deaths were not seen again in Washington until 2004, when The Washington Post warned the public about the lead crisis, and federal health officials recommended that children and pregnant women refrain from drinking unfiltered tap water. By the end of 2004, fetal deaths had dropped back to a normal 7 per 1,000 births.
The dangers of ingesting lead are well documented. Besides causing miscarriages and brain damage, lead has also been blamed for behavioral and developmental problems in children.

Edwards' study contradicts prior government investigations that virtually denied any connection between public health and lead levels in city water. In April 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hastily exonerated the DC water supply of any deleterious effects upon residents, including children who had been most exposed to the highest concentrations of lead. Only after years of criticism did the CDCP issue a correction, in 2010, finally admitting its original study was the result of inadequate data that had led to an erroneous conclusion.

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Washington's drinking water has returned to normal, and its lead content is now at its lowest level ever. But George Hawkins, the new director of the local water authority, acknowledges the severity of the prior surge in lead. "We generally believe lead in water is a great risk to human health, and that's why we have an extremely proactive program to respond to it," he said.

Though it remains to be seen if any wrongful death or personal injury civil suits have been filed on behalf of the women and children who suffered the ill effects of the lead-tainted water, the question of whether government authorities share some responsibility for those injuries and deaths - and therefore could be ordered to provide compensation to the victims and their families - is a logical one. If you or someone you love was adversely affected by lead-poisoned water, contact one our dedicated Washington, DC personal injury attorneys today for a free consultation. The attorneys at Price Benowitz, LLP can walk you through all aspects of the issue and help you find out if you have a case.

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