America - Andrew Stephen finds murky things in the water

In the land where lives are held to be more precious than anywhere else, the capital's denizens are

The other day, I found myself getting up early and heading for the kitchen. There I filled two jars with cold water - one immediately the water started running, and the other after the water became colder. I had made sure that no water was used in the house in the previous eight hours: no toilets flushed, no use of taps, and no water leaking. Five days later, I had to leave the two jars outside the house. Then they were collected by the Washington, DC Water and Sewer Authority (Wasa).

We are often told that life is considered more precious here than in any other country, but I frequently wonder. Who would have thought that America's capital would be incapable of providing safe water to its inhabitants? That morning, I was collecting two samples of drinking water from my house for Wasa to analyse. I am promised an answer within 30 days. In the meantime, I can buy what is probably an ineffective water jug filter for approximately $20, and hope that the inhabitants of my house and I are not being poisoned by lead - which, I have learned, kills all living things. I have little confidence in the results, I have to say, if and when Wasa gets round to sending them to me.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lays down a safety limit of 15 parts lead per billion for drinking water - the equivalent of a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, seemingly tiny, but the threshold of a safe level. In the past two years, Wasa discovered that 4,075 out of 6,118 houses it routinely tested exceeded those safety levels: one house tested an astonishing 48,000ppb, and another 24,000ppb. But the Washington authorities did nothing except send a confusing letter to the households affected; it did not warn the population at large that there was a serious lead problem in its drinking water. It took the Washington Post to reveal the scandal in January, and it now deserves a Pulitzer prize for following up water problems in DC so assiduously.

The advice from the DC authorities since the media brought the problem out into the open has been pitiful. First, they said that only 23,000 dwellings with lead service lines - the pipes running from the water mains into houses - were affected, out of 130,000 homes (I was in one of the 23,000, I discovered). Then they conceded that more houses were affected by potentially dangerous water. They sent out more confusing letters. First they advised residents to run water for 30 seconds. Then they said 90 seconds was preferable. Now they are advising people who live in the nation's capital to run water for ten minutes before drinking it or cooking with it - but experts say this may worsen the problem.

These experts say that elevated lead levels are especially dangerous to pregnant women, children under six years of age and mothers breastfeeding their babies. Particularly for those most at risk, high lead levels in water can damage the brain, nervous system, red blood cells and kidneys. IQs are lowered and the lead can create behavioural problems in children. Researchers have found that, for genetic reasons, black children are more likely to be poisoned by lead than white children - and it was in a black area that the hugely high levels were discovered. Poverty is such that many cannot even afford the jug filters, which quickly sold out in Georgetown (where I live) and in other prosperous white areas.

The response of the city authorities has been to hand out free jug filters at centres that are often not within convenient reach for most black people. They are also providing free blood tests for those most affected, though not for the rest of us. They are replacing the lead water-service pipes at a hopeless rate of 7 per cent annually, and at a cost of between $10m and $20m annually. As far as I can make out, it will take years for the lead levels in Washington's water to improve. But I discovered belatedly that the clever and wealthy people in areas such as Georgetown have built-in water filters in their basements which provide them with lead-free water. The rest of us are at the mercy of Wasa and the water jugs ("guaranteed to remove 98 per cent of lead") until Wasa gets round to dealing with the problem in the aeons to come.

The Washington water authorities have refused to hold any press conferences since the Post broke the story, saying they did not want to create city-wide panic; instead, they left it to the media to whip things up.

A letter warning of the problems in a roundabout way did not reach me until recently, although Wasa has known of the problem since at least 2002. Ever since January, it has been frantically back-pedalling on all the advice it has given. In some cases, it has said that those with copper pipes leading to their houses are safe, but then testing has shown this not to be the case; then it has blamed people with lead piping inside their houses (the responsibility of the tenants), but this again has been shown not to be the cause of the problem.

A clue may lie in the Washington Aqueduct, which provides water to everywhere in the District of Columbia and to areas of northern Virginia. The bacteria in the water were such that heavy doses of chlorine were pumped in, which in itself created chemical problems. To counteract this, the water engineers have been using a chemical called chloramine in the water. Does this help to corrode lead piping and produce the high lead levels? Nobody seems to know for certain, but there is talk that Wasa may be cutting back on the use of chloramine. But even with that, it will take a long time for the effects to be felt.

For me, the problems have produced a more personal outrage that has left me gnashing my teeth in apparent helplessness. The authorities say that my calling the lead hotline alerted them that they were providing water to my house, even though they have been doing so for countless decades and had asked to change the water meter in the house a matter of weeks ago (which they subsequently did). The day that my water samples were collected, I received a phone call saying that my household owed money for water supply over the four years I have been living in the house; apparently nothing had been paid, although not one bill had been sent.

How much was this figure, I asked? "$13,000," they replied, seeming to pluck a monumental figure out of nowhere but claiming it was what the meter showed (even though the current meter was fitted only recently). In answer to my protestations, they said they would cut the bill to three instead of four years - reducing the figure to somewhere around $10,000. There were ten days, they said, in which to protest officially; but, they implied, there was little hope they would look on an appeal favourably. We are faced, therefore, with having to pay an outrageous sum of money for a possibly dangerous product that could well be slowly poisoning us.

Words do not often fail me, but they do on this occasion.