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The results come as the state demands the city to take further steps to limit the amount of lead its water leaches out of old water fixtures.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND WATER BUREAU - An autosampler tests water collected in a sample of homes in Portland build between 1982 and 1985. Lead levels under the Portland Water Bureau’s biannual testing were slightly higher than the federal action limit.

The new results come as the Oregon Health Authority is demanding the water bureau “move quickly to further reduce lead levels at the tap as much as possible using existing treatment and water system facilities.”

Tests found 14 of the 112 homes sampled reached 17 parts per billion of lead. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a limit of 15 parts per billion of lead — anything above that triggers an “exceedance,” which means the utility should take action.

“The main action is notifying the public,” says Portland Water Bureau spokeswoman Jaymee Cuti.

Bureau officials recommend people who have lead in their home’s water supply lines should run their taps for a few seconds each morning.

“It’s a really simple, easy way to address that issue,” says Scott Bradway, the bureau’s lead hazard reduction program manager.

The water bureau has selected a set of homes with pipes built between 1982 and 1985 for its biannual sample. The same homes are tested every six months to ensure that lead is not leeching out of the solder in those pipes, which usually happens when the water is corrosively acidic. The last exceedance occurred in 2013 and involved 13 homes from the sampling pool, representative of thousands of other homes.

“Because of our alternative approach to how to address the (EPA’s) lead and copper rule, we do monitoring every six months,” Bradway says. “The idea is protecting public health. You don’t want it to get to a point where it’s an actual health risk.”

Portland’s alternative approach has been controversial at times. Water utilities tend to put chemicals in the water to alter the acidity in a way that reduces the leaching of lead out of old metal fixtures, but Portland has been loath to do that with its celebrated water supply.

Lead in water pipes was banned in 1986. Regulations stipulate homes built after 1982 be tested, according to the water bureau, though older homes could have even more lead.

“Nearly all homes built prior to the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes,” according to the website of Plumbing Manufacturers International, a trade association of plumbing products manufacturers.

Portland’s tests, as per protocol, are conducted on water that has been sitting in the pipes for at least six hours. The approximately 120 homeowners who participate in the program collect one-liter samples twice a year and send them off to the bureau.

“People generally don’t like having a city employee standing by their kitchen faucet first thing in the morning,” Bradway says, explaining why homeowners collect the sample.

In 1997, the water bureau began raising its water’s pH level from 6.5 to 6.8.

In response to pressure from the Oregon Health Authority, the water bureau will do even more in coming months and years to reduce lead its customers may be drinking.

A corrosion control study is due next June, with many more steps planned between now and a March 2023 deadline to comply with minimum water-quality parameters.

An interim lead reduction plan is due to OHA by Dec. 2.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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