Faucet fears fall on deaf ears

Sound the all-clear alert: Capitol Hill’s water is safe, says the Capitol’s water supplier.

Only one problem: Imposing “DO NOT DRINK” signs remain posted throughout Senate and House office building bathrooms. The signs, put up in 2005 as a cautionary measure against possible lead contamination from Capitol pipes, can still make people think twice before brushing their teeth or washing their faces from bathroom faucets.

The Architect of the Capitol (AoC), which oversees Capitol Hill’s water maintenance, has since replaced many of the bathroom water faucets with lead-free alloy fixtures, but not all of them.

As a result, the dissuading signs still leer down in all office building bathrooms. AoC spokeswoman Eva Malecki explained that some faucets “pre-date” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for lead levels in water, set in 1996.

No one is in any real danger for lead poisoning from water running through the bathroom faucets, said the manager of the Washington Aqueduct, who has been trying to get the signs removed. The Aqueduct, run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, delivers water to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, including Capitol Hill, and has taken steps in recent years to reduce the amount of lead in District water.

“I’ve tried hard to get the signs down, short of going in there myself with a putty knife,” said Tom Jacobus, the Aqueduct’s general manager. He insists the water’s perfectly good to drink, or to use for brushing your teeth.

The signs don’t stop everyone from using the water. Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) said he washes his face and brushes his teeth in the bathrooms on occasion and has “no worries whatsoever” that he runs a risk of lead poisoning.

“I’m too old for lead to bother me now. If I would have gotten lead poisoning it would have happened by now,” said Davis.

Faucet fears across Washington, D.C., intensified in 2004 after the AoC found high traces of lead in the water on Capitol Hill. The Environmental Protection Agency advised people at the time they “should be discouraged” from drinking the bathroom faucet water, which led to the posting of signs.

“At the time, the Architect of the Capitol did sampling and they did come up with high lead levels in some of the faucets in the bathrooms, so they put placards above them that say ‘Do not drink,’ ” said Richard Rogers, chief of the EPA’s regional drinking water branch.

Washington lead levels have declined in recent annual tests, however, and no longer pose a significant threat to water users, Jacobus said.

Rogers agreed that overall lead levels have decreased to a non-threatening level. But without seeing specific data, there could still be damaging levels of lead in the Capitol’s water system. As a result, he said, he couldn’t say whether warning signs should be taken down.

“The lead levels in homes [in D.C.] are showing that the levels are very much lower than they were in 2004,” said Rogers. “But situations can be different in a large building with large plumbing systems.”

Jacobus, however, argues that warning signs do more harm than good by suggesting to visitors and congressional employees that the water of our nation’s Capitol buildings is not safe to drink.

For many centuries lead has been used as a construction material because of its abundance and cheap, easy access.

Minuscule amounts of lead in water pose little if any danger to most people, but in larger doses the metal can be highly toxic when absorbed into the bloodstream or when, because the body confuses lead with calcium, it is stored in calcium-deficient bones.

Ingesting lead can lead to reproductive problems, high blood pressure and hypertension, nerve disorders and memory and concentration problems, according to the EPA.  

To ensure the safety of Washington water, in August of 2004, the Washington Aqueduct began adding a corrosion inhibitor to the city’s water, which prevents pieces of the plumbing that could contain lead from coming loose in the water.

In recent months, officials at the Aqueduct have been consumed with different water safety problems, as Capitol Hill’s water supply was recently found to have traces of six pharmaceuticals.

The pharmaceuticals can come from many places, including from people flushing unused medication down the toilet and rain runoff from animal feeding operations that use pharmaceuticals.

While the pharmaceuticals, including an anti-seizure medication, two anti-inflammatory drugs, two types of antibiotics and a disinfectant, are not believed to be harmful in such small doses, the precise effects of prolonged exposure is still unknown to scientists and doctors.

Aside from filtering water that runs through Capitol drinking fountains, the AoC does not additionally treat the water from the Aqueduct. It can only filter out pharmaceuticals above levels of known human health concern, but is always looking for ways to improve its treatment process, according to Jacobus.

Jacobus indicated these problems shouldn’t be a reason for the warning signs to hang in Capitol Hill bathrooms. But for now, it doesn’t appear they will be coming down anytime soon.

In any event, Davis indicated the signs aren’t a deterrent for him. He said he is more concerned with lead products coming from China than the Capitol Hill bathroom water.