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Alarm Over Drinking Water Unwarranted, Officials Say

January 10, 1988|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

A widely publicized report on lead contamination sparked unsubstantiated fears that refrigerated water fountains might cause lead poisoning in people who drink from them, federal health officials said.

The report, prepared for an agency of the U.S. Public Health Service and aired last month by the House subcommittee on health and environment, said "virtually all electric drinking water fountains in schools appear to have sizable elevations of lead in their water."

In making the report public, the panel's chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), said it shows that "electric drinking water coolers across the country may be poisoning the water they distribute." He urged manufacturers to stop using lead-lined tanks and lead-based pipe solder.

Widespread publicity given to the report prompted many schools throughout the nation to shut down their fountains and begin emergency testing of the water they dispensed. In California, state schools Supt. Bill Honig cited the report in issuing a statewide advisory calling on schools to turn off their fountains until the "potential lead hazard" could be evaluated.

But unfortunately, the officials said last week, the section of the report that caused the alarm was based on limited data that did not necessarily apply to schools.

"People at every level slipped up on this one," an official of the U.S. Public Health Service, requesting anonymity, said.

Leaping to Conclusions

Lawrence J. Jensen, assistant administrator for water in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said authors of the report used data from an informal test of drinking water at two U.S. Navy bases in Maryland. Then, he said, they "just leaped to some unsubstantiated conclusions" about the supposed lead danger from refrigerated fountains nationwide.

No test results from public schools or any other locations were used to see if they supported the Navy study, Jensen said. Despite that, a section of the 555-page report--"The Nature and Extent of Lead Poisoning in Children in the United States"--used the Navy data as the sole basis for the alleged danger from refrigerated fountains in schools.

The report also incorrectly attributes the Navy data to 1987 EPA studies on water fountains in schools--studies that were never made, Jensen said.

Jensen also said the EPA is not the source, as the report claims, for the statement that all fountain brands "produce high lead-levels in standing water" and that the holding tanks in the fountains are "usually" lead lined.

Arnold Braswell, a spokesman for the water-cooler industry, said the manufacturers have been made the "scapegoat." He called on federal health officials to disavow the congressional report and "set the record straight."

Braswell, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, said holding tanks in refrigerated fountains are made of copper or stainless steel.

Never, so far as anyone can determine, he said, have the tanks been lined with lead. "There would be no reason to use lead inside the tanks, since we don't use materials that are subject to water corrosion," he said.

Braswell said three of the nation's four major manufacturers of electric water fountains also have never used lead to solder copper joints. The fourth firm, Halsey Taylor of Freeport, Ill., switched to a non-lead solder last year, he said.

While deploring "overreactions" to the congressional report, the EPA's Jensen and other health officials said lead contamination in the nation's drinking water is a major concern. They said even very small quantities of lead can damage mental functions, especially in children, and cause hypertension and kidney disease in adults.

Jensen said the furor created by the "premature" release of the draft report "may be all to the good" if it helps draw attention to the problem and prompts schools to undertake more extensive water testing.

He said he hopes disclosures about how the report was prepared will not "undermine the credibility" of efforts to find and eliminate sources of lead contamination.

Problem in Pipes

In drinking water, Jensen said, the contamination comes "almost exclusively" from lead used to connect pipes in distribution systems--water mains and house plumbing. He said the EPA cannot "exonerate" electric water coolers unless new tests prove that they don't contribute lead to water. "The whole question is up in the air until we get more data," he said.

Jensen said that ever since the draft report came out at the Waxman hearings, "we have been trying to make people understand that some very strong statements (in the draft) are just not the case."

He said that when he was called to testify Dec. 11, he tried to point out problems in the study, "but Mr. Waxman and his people didn't want to hear it. They had made water coolers the focal point of the hearing."

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