Lead in Oregon’s Drinking Water
A primer on where lead comes from, health impacts, and who is working to solve these problems.
Over the past several years, alarming headlines about lead found in drinking water across Oregon have raised public awareness as well as action from public agencies. Yet lead continues to be one of the top concerns of many people when asked about their drinking water.
Earlier this year, we heard from several groups in the Portland area about their top water-related toxics concerns, which included lead. Even though efforts have been made by drinking water providers to replace lead service lines, it’s clear that we still have work to do to address public concerns, ensure everyone has safe water and rebuild public trust.
Read on for a primer on how lead ends up in our drinking water, the health impacts, and who is working to solve these problems.
What are the effects of lead poisoning on our health and communities?
By the Industrial Revolution, lead was a well-known killer, but it was so useful and profitable in commercial products that it continued to be used widely for decades. Lead was used in early printing, gasoline, food packaging, leaded glass, house paint and to mass produce lead plumbing. Today, many past uses of lead have been banned and lead levels in our air, tap water, food, dust, and soil have been significantly reduced.
Lead bioaccumulates, meaning it builds up in the body over time, and for children whose bodies and brains are still growing and developing, even low levels of lead poisoning can seriously harm a child’s health and development, including:
- Permanent damage to the brain and nervous system
- Slowed growth and development
- Learning and behavior problems
- Hearing and speech problems
This can cause:
- Lower IQ
- Decreased ability to pay attention
- Underperformance in school
- Hyperactivity and impulsiveness
Today we call the combination of many of these behaviors ADHD. In the short film Crime of the Century: The Lead Pandemic, children’s health and toxics expert Dr. Bruce Lanphear illustrates how eliminating lead exposure could prevent more than 600,000 cases of ADHD in the United States.
And these impacts follow us into adulthood: Children who have higher lead exposure never reach the same peak intellectual ability as children with lower exposure, and adults with higher lead exposure have accelerated declines in their mental abilities as they age. Some may develop dementia sooner.
Lead is a risk factor for many common health conditions, including heart disease and heart attacks, high blood pressure, kidney damage, fertility and pregnancy complications, memory loss, and irritability or aggressive behavior. Studies have also shown that young adults who are more heavily exposed to lead in childhood were more likely to be arrested for violent crimes.
When lead continues to show up in our homes and schools, we are holding back entire generations from achieving their full potential.
Nationally, Black children are exposed to lead at twice the rates that white children are:
This graphic from a 2018 article by Undark Magazine shows how from 1988 to 2014, the percentage of children aged 1 to 5 years with high blood lead levels fell dramatically for multiple racial and ethnic groups. Still, even by 2014, non-Hispanic Black children were twice as likely as non-Hispanic white children and more than three times as likely as Mexican American children to have elevated blood lead levels.
How are we exposed?
According to the EPA, drinking water can make up to 20% or more of a person’s total exposure to lead – more for infants who consume mostly mixed formula.
While lead paint and dust continues to be the top source of lead exposure in Multnomah County (where there is a robust site visit and evaluation program to determine lead poisoning sources), eliminating lead in drinking water is a significant opportunity to reduce and prevent lead exposure statewide.
Where exactly does the lead in our water come from?
Lead is not naturally found in water. Most of the lead that ends up in our drinking water comes from plumbing connections and fixtures within homes and buildings, particularly those built before 1986 when the first “lead free” standard was set.
Water is naturally corrosive, however, which means it breaks down pipes, plumbing joints and fixtures, releasing lead particles into your drinking water. Since not everyone can afford to replace all of their plumbing, most water providers treat water using certain chemicals that keep the lead in place by reducing corrosion. This treatment is called “optimum corrosion control,” and is required in many situations by the EPA’s 1991 Lead and Copper Rule.
Regulating lead in water
The Lead and Copper Rule requires the monitoring of drinking water at people’s taps and—if lead levels are too high—requires water providers to take action to control corrosion, inform the public, and (in some cases) replace lead pipes. Implementing all aspects of the rule is a group effort, with the EPA, Oregon Health Authority, water systems, and homeowners all having a role to play.
Lead service lines usually aren’t the problem:
Between 1985 and 1998, the City of Portland spent nearly $10 million to remove more than 10,000 lead service connections, the piece of pipe that connects the city’s water system to your house or building. Unlike East Coast and Midwestern states, lead pipes weren’t used extensively by water departments across Oregon, and those cities with remaining lead components are on a schedule for removal with Oregon Health Authority.
Corrosion control varies:
Even though there are very few lead service lines or connections left in Oregon, we still have a lot of older homes and buildings that have lead plumbing components. Ultimately these lead pipes are the homeowners’ responsibility, but to prevent that lead from leaching into drinking water, water providers can implement corrosion control strategies at the treatment plant. Treatment plans are developed by your local water provider and approved by Oregon Health Authority, and ultimately by the EPA for compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.
In the 1990s, Portland Water Bureau entered into a unique agreement with OHA that allowed for an alternative plan to “optimum corrosion control.” Portland invested in a holistic Lead Hazard Reduction Program, which included public education, free water testing, outreach to customers with high lead levels, soil sample collection, lead paint abatement in schools and playgrounds, blood lead level tests and more.
Portland’s focus was on greater reduction of blood lead levels in children from all sources of lead, but water test results continued to register close to the EPA’s Action Level of 15 ppb.
In 2016, Portland determined that additional treatment was needed to reduce lead at customer taps and began working with OHA and EPA on plans for treatment improvements. New treatment facilities to make Portland’s water less corrosive will be online in 2022.
Until then, Portland Water Bureau customers can minimize lead exposure by:
- Running 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 in hot water.
- Boiling water will NOT get rid of lead contamination. Consider getting a filter recommended by EWG that will reduce lead.
Water treatment can help reduce lead leaching from water pipes, but in the long term, the only guaranteed solution is the replacement of lead pipes and plumbing fixtures that contain lead with safer alternatives.
Action levels should be lowered:
Your water provider is required to test for lead. If too many homes and buildings register above the EPA’s “action level” of 15 ppb, additional steps must be taken to address these issues.
However, the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb does not mean that 15 ppb is a safe level of lead in drinking water. There is no level of lead that is safe for consumption, and health advocates say that we should be aiming for lead levels in water of 1 ppb or less.
Relying on a 15 ppb action level instead of prevention often means that lower yet health-threatening levels of lead contamination can go unaddressed.
Start with schools and childcare:
Getting the lead out of schools and childcare facilities can eliminate lead exposure for millions of young children where they spend a majority of their time under normal circumstances. But Oregon regulations and funding are not strong enough.
“Science now makes clear that there is no safe level of lead exposure for our children. It impairs how they learn, grow and behave,” says Celeste Meiffren-Swango, State Director for Environment Oregon. “Oregon should prioritize reducing all sources of lead exposure for our kids, especially in drinking water at schools and childcare facilities.”
A 2016 analysis by Environment Oregon found that 88% of Oregon school districts (97% reporting) found lead in drinking water at or above the 15 ppb level. Under OHA’s new rules for schools, districts are only required to remove and replace fixtures at or above 15ppb but not below.
Despite lax requirements, some districts are going above and beyond. After replacing fixtures and still finding high lead levels at taps, Portland Public Schools is piloting an approach to lower lead levels to 1ppb. This program would use highly effective lead filters at water bottle filling stations and bubblers, which could potentially reduce lead levels to below 1 ppb and lower bond capital costs.
According to Celeste at Environment Oregon, “NSF-certified filters have been proven to effectively remove lead and can be an affordable short-term solution to the problem of lead in drinking water. Installing them in schools and childcare facilities would immediately protect children from lead in their water, as schools and childcare facilities develop a longer-term solution.”
Environment Oregon recommends that states and communities should:
- Proactively “get the lead out” of schools and child care centers by replacing fountains, faucets and other parts containing lead.
- Install and maintain filters certified to remove lead on every faucet or fountain used for cooking and drinking.
- Adopt a 1 part per billion (ppb) standard for lead in schools’ drinking water, consistent with recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Require testing at all water outlets used for drinking or cooking at all schools annually, using protocols designed to capture worst-case lead exposure for children.
- Immediately remove from service any faucet or fountain used for drinking or cooking where testing indicates lead in the water.
- Disclose all available information about lead in water infrastructure, test results and remediation plans/progress both onsite and online.
- Provide funding to remove lead in schools’ water infrastructure.
As Congress and Oregon lawmakers work on economic recovery measures, investments in clean water infrastructure will not only fuel jobs and businesses across the state, but they can also decrease toxic exposures and keep water rates affordable for working Oregonians.
The next blog in our Toxics in Water series looks at “forever chemicals,” a class of toxic substances called PFAS, that are getting into groundwater and waterways. Stay with us as we explore other toxics in water issues affecting our families and neighbors across the state.
Share your lead story in the comments below!
OEC’s Toxics in Water outreach and blog series was generously funded by the Doll Family Foundation.