Majority of Hill Water Declared Safe

Posted January 24, 2005 at 6:47pm

Comprehensive testing of water sources across Capitol Hill has revealed that approximately 10 percent of the Congressional drinking water supply may contain lead above suggested federal limits, according to statistics provided Monday by the Architect of the Capitol’s office.

Although the results have prompted remedial action, including the shutdown of some drinking fountains in recent weeks, Congressional officials and the U.S. Public Health Service are heralding the results as good news.

AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki noted that the tests show nearly 90 percent of water sources in the Capitol complex below the maximum lead safety levels of 20 parts per billion set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The tests were prompted by the discovery of elevated lead levels in drinking water in all three Library of Congress buildings in December.

“We’ve had very few instances where we’ve had to take things out of service,” said Malecki. The test results provided by the AOC included data on drinking fountains and kitchen facilities in public areas of House and Senate office buildings, but not private bathrooms and kitchenettes.

Additionally, Malecki noted, in several locations including the Capitol no fixtures tested above the federal limits.

The Public Health Service’s Division of Federal Occupational Health, which is working with the Architect’s office and the EPA to determine the source of the lead, similarly praised the results in an advisory last week, noting that many of the higher readings were from “initial draws,” or the first water taken from a faucet or fixture.

“It is important to note that while a few results indicated high levels of lead, the vast majority of the lead levels from the water taps and drinking fountains tested on the Capitol Hill campus were below recommended action levels,” the Jan. 19 advisory states.

But Library of Congress Professional Guild President Saul Schniderman countered those statements Monday, arguing that contaminated water shouldn’t be acceptable anywhere on Capitol Hill.

“The Architect is required to provide safe drinking water, and the fact that many legislative branch staffers have been drinking bottled water for years, this is not a solution to the problem,” said Schniderman, who heads the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 2910.

The Office of Compliance cited the AOC in early January after testing found contaminated drinking water in all three Library buildings.

According to test results produced by the Public Health Service in December, copies of which were obtained by Roll Call, sources in the LOC’s Adams Building such as sinks and icemakers produced tests results ranging from safely below the federal safety standards to a high of 297 parts per billion in one water fountain.

Additionally, among samples of 65 water fountains, which included the highest readings in the building, tests showed significant differences in draws taken from the same source.

Test results for one water fountain, located on the fifth floor of Adams, found lead contamination at 141 parts per billion in an initial sample, but only 15.8 parts per billion on a subsequent test.

In response to test results, the AOC shut down the drinking water system throughout the Adams Building earlier this month and is providing bottled water to employees in that facility.

In addition, six drinking fountains in the Madison Building and three in the Jefferson Building were removed from service.

Schniderman said the guild’s executive board also plans to recommend that Library employees who fall into “high risk” health categories, such as pregnant women, nursing mothers and people with compromised immune systems, discuss potential lead-related health problems with their private physicians.

The Public Health Service, however, has stated that preliminary tests suggest “it is highly unlikely” that the lead levels would inflict ill health effects on the majority of Hill staffers.

The AOC has yet to release specific data on the tests for any building, but according to individual building results released to Congressional employees during the past two weeks, only a handful of drinking fountains and kitchen facilities in House and Senate office buildings have been decommissioned because they exceeded federal lead safety levels.

On the Senate side, officials tested water samples from 22 drinking fountains in the Hart Building and removed two from use. In the Dirksen Building, officials shut down one of 42 fountains tested.

Of the four drinking fountains tested in the Russell Building, all were found to be below established lead safety levels.

Only five of the more than 140 restroom plumbing fixtures sampled in the Senate office buildings produced water with elevated lead levels. Similar tests of 200 bathroom fixtures in the four House office buildings found 26 sources with high lead content.

None of the contaminated sources was specifically identified; however, on the advice of the EPA, the Architect cautioned Congressional staff in early January against drinking water from restroom faucets and kitchenette sinks throughout the Capitol complex.

The AOC is continuing to evaluate data from the restroom faucets and plans to resample those fixtures in coming weeks.

As a result of the sampling, two water fountains were removed from both the Cannon and the Ford buildings, where AOC officials tested 36 and 19 sources, respectively.

Tests also included 44 drinking fountains in the Rayburn Building, of which four were removed.

Tests on drinking fountains in the Longworth Building remained pending in mid-January, and the AOC is providing those employees with bottled water.

In the meantime, the AOC is retesting water sources in Congressional daycare facilities as well as the House and Senate page dorms. The Architect performed similar tests following the spring 2004 discovery of elevated lead levels by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority.