Oregon wants quick fix to high lead levels in Portland water


It has been six years since Dr. Marc Edwards first identified toxic levels of lead in water in Flint, Michigan.

Since then, Professor Virginia Tech – credited alongside her colleague with calling the world’s attention to a brewing water crisis in Flint – has become baffled by lead levels in another city: Portland, Oregon. Edwards, who specializes in water treatment, is blunt: “It’s worse than Flint.

Portland’s Bull Run Reservoir is the main source of drinking water for the City of Portland, but regulators say its water is corrosive and can cause lead solder in older pipes to rupture and leach into the tank. stagnant water, creating health risks.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

“In Flint, it lasted 18 months. ” he said. “It was a national and international outcry, thousands of stories, dozens of documentary films. … In Portland, they are above action level again and this has been going on for several decades.

In recent years, Flint’s water has become synonymous with environmental disaster. Portland’s water, meanwhile, is considered one of the most pristine in the country, though the city’s lead levels typically stay just below – and sometimes exceed – the federal safe limit of 15 parts per. billion (or ppb). If test samples contain lead levels above 15 ppb, the Environmental Protection Agency requires the utility to take action to reduce the amount of lead, such as updating old pipes or treating water. .

The Portland Water Bureau takes issue with the comparison to Flint’s water problem. In Flint, the water was contaminated by lead service lines that touched most of the homes and buildings in the community. Water office spokesperson Jaymee Cuti said the main source of lead in Portland water is copper pipes with lead solder in less than 10% of homes and buildings.

But the city faces its own unique chronic lead problem, and state health regulators are calling for a quick fix.

Last November, the water office received alarming water samples. Of 104 homes with lead components in their household plumbing sampled by the water bureau, 10% had lead levels above 21 parts per billion – the highest results the city has seen in two decades and well beyond. above the federal limit.

Two homes sampled had lead levels more than five times above the EPA limit – 105 ppb and 81 ppb, according to a letter from the Oregon Health Authority obtained by the OPB.

For Edwards, the results were the latest reminder that Portland’s water officials have failed for years to significantly reduce the city’s lead levels. For the Oregon Health Authority, it was a sign that they had to intervene.

Health regulators crack down

On December 14, the drinking water division of the Oregon Health Authority sent a letter to the director of the Portland Water Bureau, Gabriel Solmer.

“Drinking Water Services (DWS) is very concerned about the recent exceedance of the primary action level,” wrote Technical Director Kari Salis. “As you know, there is no lead exposure level without danger.”

Since the late 1990s, samples have shown Portland to exceed the federal lead level 11 times. In 2017, after Portland surpassed that threshold again, the OHA asked the water office to build a corrosion control treatment facility, according to Salis’ letter. The water in the Bull Run watershed is naturally corrosive, which can lead to lead infiltration from plumbing and copper fixtures into homes. By building a facility to make Portland water less corrosive, the office hopes to reduce the amount of lead dissolving from old plumbing in standing water. Installation is expected to be completed by April.

But with lead samples at the highest levels since 2000, the Oregon Health Authority is calling for a faster solution.

The agency asked the water bureau to provide a plan of “additional short-term measures” by Friday. OHA spokesperson Jonathan Modie said the agency expects, at a minimum, the plan to include “further adjustments to treatment, as well as increased public education and awareness.” .

Water bureau spokesman Jaymee Cuti said the two agencies “are working together on a plan to best protect vulnerable people and all who drink our water.”

The bureau says their test results show that less than 7% of homes built between 1970 and 1985 have high levels of lead in their drinking water.

Senior expert recommends water filters

Lead can affect almost any organ, with exposure particularly harmful to the body and mind of pregnant people and children. The toxin puts children at increased risk for learning and behavior problems, including attention deficit disorder, and it puts mothers at a higher likelihood of miscarriage, according to the EPA.

While the EPA requires utilities to take action when lead levels exceed 15 ppb, Dr Bruce Lanphear, who has studied lead poisoning for 25 years, said lead in drinking water may have adverse health effects once levels reach 5 ppb. He recommends that Portland residents in high-risk homes use filters for their water.

The water bureau reports that the homes most exposed to lead in water are those with copper pipes connected to lead solder, which were typically built or leaded between 1970 and 1985. This potentially accounts for up to ‘to 15,000 homes, according to the bureau. Twice a year, Portland will sample the water from homes at greatest risk, those built between 1983 and 1985.

Edwards Professor Virginia Tech said Portland holds the distinction as the largest city consistently showing high levels of lead in their water samples for high-risk homes. He puts the blame on the Portland Water Bureau and an unusual arrangement made decades ago with the state health authority.

Through the Lead and Copper Rule, the EPA regulates the amount of lead allowed in drinking water and requires utilities to take action if lead levels exceed a threshold of 15 ppb. In 1997, the state allowed Portland to come up with a unique answer to the rule. Instead of treating water like other cities were doing, Portland launched a program that would focus on education, awareness and repair of lead paint in homes with children, according to a 2016 survey. by The Oregonian.

This investigation found that this one-of-a-kind deal meant that Portland had effectively bypassed general EPA regulations to minimize lead in the water supply. The water bureau did not need to follow federal rules that require the addition of chemicals to water to reduce pipe corrosion and prevent the release of lead, the report said.

Cuti, the spokesperson for the water bureau, said the city has followed the lead and copper rule since its inception.

“Our regulators have approved a plan to tackle the most common sources of lead exposure in our community, including lead-based paint and drinking water,” she wrote.

New treatment facility planned

Since then, the city has changed course. The water bureau said it expects the new corrosion control facility, where the water will be treated with soda ash and carbon dioxide, to significantly reduce lead levels in Portland.

To measure the impact this installation will have, the water bureau has launched a two-year study of 40 people so officials can see how lead levels in high-risk homes improve after the installation is online.

For Christine Prapas, the change in treatment does not come soon enough.

Prapas, a retired artist, has lived in her southwest Portland neighborhood at Garden Home House since 1991. Her house was 10 years old when she bought it, built during a time when lead in plumbing was common .

Last January, Prapas received a note from the water office asking him to participate in the study. In return for sending monthly water samples, she would get a reduced water bill and monthly analysis for lead in her water.

She started sending samples from her kitchen sink in June of last year. Since then, she has seen her test numbers increase. Seven months of results reviewed by OPB show that its samples fell from 12.9 ppb on June 14 to 18.9 ppb on December 2.

From the first result, Prapas started using a lead filter for his tap. But she worries about people in older homes like hers who have never received a letter from the water office.

“You can’t boil lead,” she says. “It affects infants, it affects us all.”

The water office said it is working in close coordination with the OHA and expects to be able to deliver its lead reduction plan early next week once it has been reviewed by the authority. sanitary.

The water office offers free lead in water testing to all residential customers and child care providers. People can contact LeadLine at leadline.org or at 503-988-4000 to receive a free lead in water test.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a response from the Portland Water Bureau and to clarify the contents of the Oregon Health Authority letter to the city.


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