As the concern about lead in drinking water spreads from Flint, Michigan to the entire country, I wanted to take a look at the threat of lead threat in Montavilla’s drinking water.
The Oregonian and OPB both reported last week that Portland Water Bureau is the only major water system in the country to exceed Environmental Protection Agency’s lead action limits recently (in 2013). And the Oregonian’s graphic (below) shows that testing hovers near the regulatory action limit of 15 parts per billion.
In the fall of 2015, the most recent round of lead tests taken, PWB reported a level 0f 14.1 parts per billion. From the 2015 Water Quality Report, 9.6% of samples (11 out of 114 the homes tested) exceeded the lead action level.
Compare that to Seattle, most recently reporting lead levels of 3.5 parts per billion, and Oakland, reporting just three parts per billion.
Multnomah County officials consider houses built between 1970 and 1985 to have the greatest risk for high lead exposure, because they are likely to contain lead solder to join plumbing pipes. Water leaving the treatment plant rarely has detectable lead levels, and PWB doesn’t use lead delivery pipes, but lead solder and lead-containing fixtures in houses can leach the toxic metal into drinking water.
Portland’s water is naturally corrosive, so treating water to control corrosion is the conventional method to reduce the leaching of lead. Both the Oregonian and OPB articles give plenty of space for PWB to explain how their addressing lead levels, but it doesn’t change the fact that many Portlanders are at risk of water-based lead exposure.
In the four census tracts that make up Montavilla, the percentage of houses from the at-risk era is fairly low, according to an analysis from the Oregonian.
16.01 – 7.778%
16.02 – 6.079%
17.01 – 4.348%
17.02 – 4.762%
Adjacent census tracts have similar percentages of houses built between 1970 and 1985. Neighborhoods on the outer reaches of the city have much higher percentages of at-risk homes, with many in the 30 to 50 percent range, and some in the 70 to 80 percent range.
Testing is limited to a twice-yearly sampling of about 100 homes. Water samples are collected by homeowners when water has been standing in household plumbing for more than six hours. If more than ten percent of the homes tested have levels over 15 parts per billion, PWB must take action (informing the public).
PWB has a unique approach to lead management, which including limited additives and a focus on testing and education. No other municipality has a similar approach, but as the enforcers of EPA rules, state officials allowed it to go forward. In the early 2000s, when their approach wasn’t meeting complaince, PWB raised the additives and altered the sample of homes tested to reach compliance.
A 2004 Washington Post investigative report found that in 2002: “the utility dropped more than half the homes with lead higher than the federal limit, replacing them with suburban homes that had, on average, significantly lower levels, [state] records show.”
There are no safe exposure levels for lead health officials warn, but there are easy steps to reduce exposure to lead in water. Lead exposure can cause behavior changes, lowered IQ, and stunted development.
Portland-based non-profit called Lead Safe America is releasing a documentary on lead safety called “MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic” that was previewed this week at the Clinton Theater.
Call 503-988-4000 to request a free water testing kit. Those free kits come in one to two weeks, and it will take four to six weeks to receive results once you mail in your sample.
In a February interview with KGW, Nick Fish, Portland City Council Member and Commissioner-in-Charge of PBW and Bureau of Environmental Services talked about the threat of waterborne lead.
“In the last 20 years we had about 18,000 homes tested, and 300 tested positive for lead. It gives you a sense it’s not a big problem, but for those 300 homeowners it was important to know they had higher levels of lead, and take precautions: flushing their water or getting a water filter or calling a plumber,” said Fish.
But in a 2010 Environmental Health Perspectives article, Harold Rogers, EPA Region 10 Safe Drinking Water Act coordinator, notes that many Portland residents likely are being exposed to lead in drinking water without knowing— despite the education and testing program.
“The Portland Water Bureau offers free lead-in-water testing upon request, and the bureau’s data on this testing give an indication of the problem mentioned by Rogers. Since 2006, 3,205 tap water samples taken by the city of Portland have been tested. Twenty-five samples of every 1,000 have measured over 15 ppb, 1 of every 100 has measured over 35 ppb, and 1 of every 1,000 has measured over 120 ppb. The highest sample, taken in August 2008, measured 910 ppb. These self-selected homes are not from the high-risk compliance sampling pool.”
In the same article, EPA headquarters agrees with Rogers:
“Portland Water Bureau has not exceeded the lead action level since December 2006, and the system performs extensive public outreach to educate the public about possible exposure. However, without conducting optimal corrosion control, they are still in violation of the treatment technique requirements of the Lead and Copper Rule,” says EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones.
Portland can be simultaneously in and out of compliance thanks to a loophole in the LCR [Lead Copper Rule] that allows the primary regulator, usually the state health or environmental protection department, to independently define “optimal corrosion control” and thus allow flexibility in water lead concentrations in order to meet other drinking water laws, according to EPA insiders.
EPA officials had a meeting with Portland water officials in early March to talk about its lead monitoring in light of the crisis in Flint and the replacement of PWB’s open reservoirs. A study that could recommend changes will be completed this summer. But until changes are implemented, it’s up to water consumers to get educated, get tested, and take precautions to protect themselves.