Common Questions About Lead In School Water

What’s the news?

Schools are finding high levels of the toxic heavy metal lead in drinking water, coming from pipes, solder or plumbing fixtures that contain lead.

It’s not the first time that this problem came to the Portland school district’s attention. As far back as 2001, tests in Portland schools revealed high levels of lead and fixtures were shut down until they could be replaced or filters installed. Yet the legacy of lead remains: In late spring 2016, lead was found in many Portland schools, in Beaverton schools and in Eugene.

Where is the lead coming from?

Lead contamination typically happens when water corrodes lead pipes, lead solder on copper pipes, or fixtures such as faucets and water fountains. Since 1986, all plumbing supplies have been required to contain no more than 8% lead; in 2011, that requirement was changed to be no more than 0.25% lead.

However, many homes and buildings have plumbing and fixtures that still contain lead. The longer that water sits in the pipes, and the warmer the water, the more lead can leach from pipes. For this reason, it’s a good idea to let the faucet run until water is noticeably colder before drinking or using for cooking.


What’s the danger?

Lead is a heavy metal that, once breathed in or swallowed, distributes through the blood and into the bones. When too much lead builds up in the body, it is damaging to nearly every organ.

Scientists have known for many decades that too much lead exposure will damage the nervous system, causing seizures and other symptoms. But more recently, studies have shown that even the smallest amount of lead can harm a child’s developing nervous system in ways that effect IQ, learning and behavior.

There is no safe level of lead for children. Children under the age of seven are most vulnerable to lead at any level because their nervous systems are still developing and they drink, breathe and eat more—pound for pound—than adults. Even low levels of lead in the blood can harm the nervous system  Lead exposure in older kids and adults can also harm the kidneys and liver, increase blood pressure and harm fertility.

Are children being exposed at dangerous levels?

Lead exposure is measured through a blood test. These tests will reveal recent and ongoing exposures to lead, which is useful in screening for problems that can be corrected. The blood lead tests do not show how much an individual has been exposed to over a lifetime.

People today are exposed to far less lead than in the past, when lead was widely used in gasoline, paint and plumbing.  In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children under six had blood lead levels over 10 µg/dL; by 2008, the number nationwide had decreased to 250,000.

From 2013 to 2016, more than 15,000 lead tests were conducted in Multnomah County. Of those, elevated blood lead levels were found in 188 children, most under the age of five. None of these elevated levels has been traced to drinking water: the greater source of exposure is thought to be dust from old paint and contaminated soil.

What has been done to address lead in old plumbing?

Public water systems are responsible for making sure water is not contaminated with lead or other toxics. To that end, many water systems treat water to reduce its corrosiveness, so that it doesn’t leach lead into water. Other water providers, including the City of Portland, have replaced all supply lines to ensure that there is no lead contamination.

In Flint, Michigan, the city switched water sources and delivered water that was not treated for corrosiveness, causing a public health disaster.

However, the responsibility does not extend to buildings themselves. The US Environmental Protection Agency encourages schools and day cares to test for lead, but it is not required by law. See more on EPA’s lead and copper rule.

What will been done to address lead in school plumbing?

In Portland, a task force will be created to examine water quality issues and recommend solutions, such as a construction bond measure to replace old water systems.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Health Authority and Department of Education are working together to urge schools to test for lead and to support them as they do. Many school districts, from Portland to Bend to Medford, are now testing or have tested for lead.

Is lead in school water an Oregon-only problem?

From 2012 to 2015, 350 schools across the nation, including day care facilities, reported high levels of lead in their drinking water. Since 2012, almost 2,000 water systems across the country that deliver water to schools have found elevated levels of lead.  See more in this USA Today article.

What should parents do?

  • Have your child tested for lead: Multnomah County will provide free lead screenings beginning on June 6 at Rose City Park and Creston schools. Families with kids attending other schools can can call Multnomah County Lead Line or visit the web site to find times and places for free lead testing. You can also ask your pediatrician to do a test. More info here.
  • Request a Water Test Kit: Multnomah County offers a free test kit that you can use to test for lead at your home. Click here to request one.
  • Get lead out of the water you drink at home: If your home plumbing has lead, you can replace fixtures with low-lead versions. If you are concerned about lead, but don’t own your home, consider cleaning faucet aerators to reduce the accumulation of lead. Heated water and water sitting in pipes leaches more lead; use only cold water to cook and allow water to run from the faucet until it is noticeably cooler to flush out lead.Water filters are a good idea, but not all of them work to remove lead, including most Pur and Brita filters. Find a list of certified filter systems here.
  • Know the other sources of lead poisoning: People can be exposed to lead through hobbies or home renovations. Many children are exposed to lead from old paint that is cracked, chipped, or in household dust. Contaminated soil near heavy traffic or former industrial areas is also a concern. Hand-painted pottery, vintage toys and costume jewelry can contain lead.
  • Serve a lead-busting diet: When a child’s diet includes iron (meat, fish, beans),calcium (milk, yogurt, spinach), and vitamin C (berries, oranges, tomatoes), children are better protected from lead exposure.
  • Lead Line: If you have any questions, call the Multnomah County Department of Health Lead Line at 503-988-4000 or email
  • Attend a lead screening clinic: Multnomah County Health Department (MCHD) is working with PPS providing these upcoming clinics:
    Monday, June 6: Rose City Park School and the Beverly Clearly School
    Tuesday, June 7: Creston School

What will OEC do?

OEC advances policies that hold schools responsible for ensuring a safe environment and adopting a healthy schools approach. For example, we helped establish a program for schools that reduces pesticide use. We also believe schools should be proactive about ensuring healthy indoor air and water quality with mandatory testing for radon and lead.

Additionally, we have advocated that the US Department of Agriculture require schools to provide safe water as part of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. And we will weigh in and watchdog PPS as they put their water quality plan into action. We will work to ensure the district takes a comprehensive approach to healthy school environments that can one day serve as a model for school districts everywhere.

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