How’s your drinking water?

The 2015 crisis in Flint, MI might have you wondering: Is there lead in my drinking water? And what else is in there that could harm my family’s health? It’s worth taking the time to find out.

Where do you get your water?

There are thousands of individual water systems in Oregon—2,600 are public and hundreds of others private. Some serve communities, and others serve individual hospitals, schools, campgrounds and more.

The 54 largest public community water systems, like those in Portland and Salem, serve 70% of Oregonians. Another 7% of Oregonians get their water from much smaller community systems, serving as few as 10 households.

All of these suppliers are required by federal law to provide a yearly drinking water report to all their water users, showing what they’ve discovered about 91 different pollutants. Oregon’s 2014 report to federal authorities shows that our water systems occasionally violate standards for arsenic, bacteria and nitrates. Some systems also failed to report at all on pollution from pesticides and other toxics.

Find much more information here about water in schools, hospitals and other non-community systems.

23% of us have private systems

Wells with less than 10 individual connections are considered “non-public” water systems and are regulated by the state, not federal law. About 23% of Oregonians get drinking water from private systems. And while experts recommend regular testing for nitrates, bacteria and arsenic, the only testing required is when a property is sold.

That testing is very rarely enforced, leaving people vulnerable to serious health risks. Groundwater contamination is a serious issue in some areas of Oregon.  Groundwater quality studies find that nitrate is the most commonly detected contaminant, followed by pesticides, volatile organic compounds, and bacteria. Fertilizer, manure runoff and failing septic systems are among the sources of these contaminants. Read more about contaminants.

Read more about an Oregon bill to prevent water contamination from septic systems.

If you rely on a private well, check out  information on testing, maintenance and safety from the Oregon Health Authority. 

OEC is leading efforts to pass a Safe Well Water Bill in 2016; you can help support this bill.

Is your plumbing older than 1985?

The most urgent problem in Flint, MI was not a polluted water supply—it was a corrosive one. Public water systems, including those in Oregon, must be treated so that they don’t corrode old pipes and release toxic lead. In Flint, the city was not complying with the law.

Oregon has a long history of going above and beyond to ensure safe drinking water for its residents. We banned lead-containing solders in 1985, a year before the federal ban. Most of our largest water systems have installed corrosion control treatment measures to reduce lead levels at the tap. And the City of Portland spent nearly $10 million to remove more than 10,000 lead service connections between 1985 and 1998.

While treated water cuts way down on lead leaching, we also know that no amount of lead is safe for infants and children. If your plumbing system is older than 1985, it likely contains some lead that may leach into water that is stagnant in your pipes. If you do have old pipes, you may wish to practice these precautions:

  • Run your tap water until it is noticeably colder in order to flush out the water sitting in your pipes.
  • Use only cold tap water for drinking and cooking; lead dissolves more easily into hot water.
  • Boiling water will not get rid of lead. You can search for filters that will reduce lead at EWG.
  • If you suspect that your child may be exposed to lead, the only way to know for sure is to ask your physician to do a blood test. 
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