$200M Suit Accuses WASA of Lead Contamination Cover-Up

Father files class-action lawsuit on behalf of DC parents

WASHINGTON -- A $200 million class-action lawsuit filed by a father of 8-year-old twin boys accuses the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority of keeping District residents in the dark about lead contamination from 2001 to 2004.

Dr. John Parkhurst filed the complaint on behalf of parents of D.C. children affected by lead in the drinking water during that period, according to the law firm of Sanford Wittels & Heisler.

The suit follows a report made public last month that determined about 42,000 District children ages 4 to 9, who were in the womb or younger than 2 during the water crisis, could be at risk for developmental problems because of lead exposure.

"In June 2001, WASA discovered that toxic levels of lead were leaching into the District's drinking water," said Stefanie Roemer, of Sanford Wittels & Heisler. "Not only did the authority fail to eliminate this danger, it actually took affirmative steps to hide the lead contamination from its customers and federal authorities."

The complaint mentions defects associated with lead poisoning in children such as decreased growth, speech and balance problems, below-average learning skills, reduced IQs, loss of executive function, hyperactivity and brain damage.

Dr. Parkhurst's adopted twin boys, Jonathan and Joshua, showed evidence of poisoning at their 2-year-old checkup in 2002, and the boys have continued to show behavioral and learning difficulties, according to Sanford Wittels & Heisler. Treatment is costing the Parkhursts up to $40,000 per year.

"WASA's actions endangered thousands of children living in the District between 2001 and 2004, many of whom, like Jonathan and Joshua Parkhurst, are now profoundly affected by their ingestion of this highly poisonous element," Roemer said.


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A study co-authored by Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech engineer and MacArthur scholar, and Dana Best, a Children's National Medical Center pediatrician and epidemiological researcher, looked at neighborhoods with water that had high lead levels and found that children in those neighborhoods also had high levels of the toxin in their blood.

"When the water lead rose, about six months later, the lead levels in the blood of these children rose," Best said.

Those neighborhoods include parts of Ward 4, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Langdon Park and part of Capitol Hill. Researchers can't say for sure how much the lead affected the children in these neighborhoods.

The suit seeks $200 million in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount in punitive damages from WASA for failing to notify parents about lead levels in the water and the dangers of drinking the water. This suit is just the beginning, according to Parkhurst's lawyers, who want to use publicity about the case to find other parents of children who may have been harmed.

Lead levels in the District's water were sometimes hundreds of times higher than what the federal government considers a level of concern, the Washington Post reported. After a new treatment chemical was added in 2001, lead concentrations began rising until they were publicized in a February 2004 Post article.

Children 2 and younger and fetuses are most vulnerable to lead exposure because their brains are still developing and their skin can more easily absorb the lead.

Current water lead levels are safe, according to WASA. WASA has struggled with complaints about its public notifications for several years but contends it is in compliance with federal standards. WASA officials haven't seen the suit but contend that experts disagree on water safety.

On Jan. 28, WASA General Manager Jerry Johnson made the following statement on drinking water in the District:

"We share the community's concern about water quality and public health issues that have been raised in recent articles in the Washington Post. I want to assure the public that District drinking water is safe and meets or exceeds every federal standard and compares favorably with drinking water in other major cities. We will continue to deliver the highest quality water to you and your children. Providing safe drinking water is DC WASA's highest priority, and we take that job very seriously.

"We will cooperate with independent experts in the field of public health and safety to understand the facts and findings of a new study that reportedly contradicts studies previously conducted by the District Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control regarding blood lead levels in young children."

On Feb. 10, Johnson testified before the Joint Public Oversight Hearing on Water Quality in the District of Columbia.  To read his testimony, click here.

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