Publication Title: 
Environmental Science & Technology
Publication Date: 
Monday, December 9, 2013

Increased exposure to lead-contaminated drinking water in Washington, DC, is a possible cause for a sharp increase in fetal deaths and somewhat lower birth rates in the region in 2000 to 2003 and again from 2007 to 2009, according to a new study published online by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The study attributes the spike in fetal deaths from 2001-2003 to a switch in drinking water disinfectant from chlorine to chloramine, which caused an unintended release of lead from plumbing material into drinking water.  

DC fetal death rates declined from 9.7 to 7.9 per thousand births in the years immediately before chloramine was used in the water and when lead levels were low, but increased as much as 63 percent by 2001. Fetal death rates did not drop below the levels prior to the use of chloramine until public health officials intervened in 2004 and limited the exposure of pregnant women to water with high levels of lead.

The second spike, from 2007 to 2009, was associated with partially replacing lead plumbing transporting water from the main into homes.  It was later discovered that partial replacements increase lead in water levels for a period of time and the associated incidence of childhood lead poisoning.  Fetal death rates rose by as much as 42 percent in 2007-2008 when the risk of high lead levels in water were the highest for homes that had partial lead service line replacements, according to the article.

Edwards M. Fetal Death and Reduced Birth Rates Associated with Exposure to Lead-Contaminated Drinking Water. Environmental Science & Technology. 2013; Online First. DOI: 10.1021/es4034952