While lead is a common, naturally occurring metal found throughout the environment, it seldom occurs naturally in water supplies like rivers and lakes. Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of the corrosion or wearing away of materials containing lead that are in household plumbing.
In Portland, the exposure to lead in drinking water is primarily from lead solder used to join copper plumbing, and from faucets. Lead solder was banned in 1985. Homes plumbed between 1970 and 1985, and water standing in lead-containing faucets are the situations most likely to produce high levels of lead in drinking water. Please review the easy steps to avoid exposure to lead from plumbing.
Portland completed removing all known lead service connections (short pieces of pipe about 1 ½ to 2 feet long that connect the water main to the water service) from its distribution system in 1998. Removing the more than 10,000 lead service connections cost the City nearly $10 million between 1985 and 1998. Portland’s system has never had lead service lines.
Portland replaced all large meters suspected of containing lead components that serve high-risk populations. As of July, 2008 the Portland Water Bureau replaced 364 large meters that serve schools, day cares, hospitals, community centers, public housing and large apartment complexes. The Water Bureau replaced these, and all future meters, with meters made from a no-lead brass.
Portland’s source water rarely contains detectable lead. The City’s drinking water supplies consistently meet or surpass all federal and state drinking water standards. Portland has always been in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule. With the approval of the Oregon Health Authority, the City of Portland developed and is implementing the award winning Lead Hazard Reduction Program as an approved alternative to providing “optimal” corrosion control treatment.
Twice each year, the Portland Water Bureau tests high-risk homes for lead in drinking water. Federal and state drinking water regulations require that water utilities collect samples from a pool of homes most at risk of having elevated lead levels from drinking water. If more than 10% of those homes have lead levels greater than 15 parts per billion, then the water from that utility is considered to have exceeded the Action Level. Some households in our community do have lead levels in standing water that exceed the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Action Level – usually because of household plumbing and faucets.
1. The regulatory limit or Action Level is based on exceeding the threshold in more than 10 percent of high-risk homes that are part of sampling program. It is not an average.
2. In January 1997, the Portland Water Bureau began corrosion treatment, raising the pH of the water to make it less acidic and less likely to leach metals. Corrosion treatment has reduced lead levels at the tap by more than 50% since the City began this treatment in 1997.
3. The Portland Water Bureau offers free tests for lead in drinking water. Call the LeadLine at 503-988-4000 for free lead in water testing and information on other lead services. Test results take approximately four to six weeks to process.
4. There is essentially no detectable lead in Portland's sources of drinking water: the Bull Run Watershed and the Columbia South Shore Well Field.
5. The Portland Water Bureau recommends that customers, especially those with children six and under and in high-risk homes follow these easy steps to avoid exposure to lead from plumbing.
6. The Portland Water Bureau has an active role in educating the community about all exposures to lead hazards, and in working with community-based organizations on lead issues. The Bureau funds many lead education and outreach activities, including:
- the LeadLine (503-988-4000), a Multnomah County health line which answers questions about lead and provides information about reducing lead hazards in the home
- free blood lead level screening clinics, lead-safe practices during remodeling (EPA brochure in PDF on lead safe remodeling) and home repairs,and
- workshops on lead poisoning prevention
- Portland Regional Lead Hazard Control Program to provide grants to home owners and landlords to reduce leas hazards, mostly in the form of deteriorating lead-based paint.
7. A 2001 study published by the Multnomah County Health Department found that in the Portland area, dust from lead paint in homes built before 1978 is the most common source of exposure to lead. (Other sources include soil, pottery, traditional folk medicines or cosmetics, some sport equipment such as fishing weights and ammunition, and some occupations and hobbies.) The Portland Water Bureau partners with the Portland Regional Lead Hazard Control Program to reduce exposure to lead. This program provides free risk assessments to income-qualified households to identify harmful levels of lead paint in the home. Grants are available to eligible households to address identified lead hazards. For information, call the LeadLine at 503-988-4000.
The Lead Hazard Reduction Program has been recognized with several awards. In January of 2006 the American Water Works Association presented the LHRP the Public Communications Achievement Award for communication and outreach in the water profession. In April, 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded a 2005 Children's Environmental Health Recognition Award that acknowledges agencies or individuals that have demonstrated commitment to protect children from environmental health risks.
In July, 2004 the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) praised these outreach efforts, citing them as a model. The comments from the GAO came from Director of Natural Resources and Environment John Stephenson who commended the Portland Water Bureau and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority for "tailoring their communications to varied audiences in their service areas, testing the effectiveness of their communication materials and linking demographic and infrastructure data to identify populations at greatest risk from lead in drinking water."
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