USA Today Posted 2/17/2009
Father sues D.C. water authority for $200 million
WASHINGTON (AP) — A single father is suing the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority for $200 million, claiming lead-contaminated tap water poisoned his twin sons as infants, causing them ongoing health problems.
The water utility between 2001 and 2004 hid elevated levels of lead from customers and federal authorities, plaintiff John Parkhurst of Capitol Hill claims in the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status. WASA failed to take steps to remedy the situation, omitted language from public education campaigns that would have warned people about the problem and continued to encourage residents to drink the water, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court.
The complaint comes on the heels of a study that determined hundreds of D.C. children might be at risk of irreversible IQ loss, developmental delays and behavioral problems linked to the lead levels. The Children’s National Medical Center and Virginia Tech research contradicts claims by D.C. and federal health officials who said in 2004 that although lead in city water was at record-breaking levels, they didn’t find any measurable ill effects on public health.
WASA officials said linking lead in water to children’s developmental and behavioral problems requires “scientific and case-specific substantiation.”
“We know the community is concerned about the possible impact of elevated levels of lead in the water in the early part of the decade, as are we,” WASA said in a statement responding to the lawsuit. “We continue to consult with health experts and the scientific community to learn more.”
Meanwhile, the validity of a 2007 research paper that also claimed D.C. residents were unharmed by the water crisis is being questioned by city officials who want an investigation. The paper was written by a university professor who had a contract with WASA.
“It’s very clear that WASA did everything it could do to protect itself, rather than protect the public,” said Katherine Kimpel, an attorney with Sanford, Wittels & Heisler in Washington, which is representing Parkhurst.
According to the lawsuit, Parkhurst prepared baby formula and food for his sons, Jonathan and Joshua, using tap water from when they were 8 months old — when he adopted them from Vietnam — until they were 2 in 2002.
It wasn’t until then, during a yearly medical checkup, that Parkhurst learned the twins, who are now 8 years old, had dangerous levels of lead in their blood. In response, Parkhurst, a 50-year-old psychologist, said doctors told him to feed his boys more root vegetables.
According to Parkhurst’s attorneys, Jonathan’s levels were so high that they were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An inspector — it’s unclear from which agency — later came to Parkhurst’s home, he said in an interview Tuesday. He said that he was not given any conclusive findings from the visit.
As the boys grew, Parkhurst said he noticed one of his sons had anxiety and both had serious attention problems. Medical evaluations later identified learning and behavioral problems, as well as a propensity to substance abuse later in life, the lawsuit said.
When Parkhurst read about the lead level study last month, he said he made the connection.
Parkhurst expects to spend about $30,000 this year in medication and therapy for his twins, he said. He wants WASA to pay those costs, but he’s more concerned about other families who may be in the same situation, but with fewer resources.
He has filed the lawsuit on behalf of himself and others in a similar situation. It seeks damages for children 6 and younger who drank D.C. water when lead levels were high; ongoing medical care, and educational and intervention services for them.
A judge must certify that the case can proceed as a class action, which would award damages and relief to the group.
“I really, truly believe there needs to be information disseminated, an educational component, and that these children really need to be followed,” in terms of their development, Parkhurst said.
His attorneys say they expect more plaintiffs to come forward.
“What we’re focused on now is not so much fixing the water,” Kimpel said. “We’re focused on trying to help the families.”