Lead danger still lurking in Portland water, experts say
A trio of water quality experts consulted by the Portland Tribune are not impressed with Portland Public Schools' plan to mitigate lead in drinking water sources.
In fact, they say, unborn babies, infants and young children are still at significant risk of lead poisoning in the city — and not just at its aging schools.
That is mostly because the pristine Bull Run water that supplies our system is great at pulling lead out of old plumbing.
Portland Water Bureau is working to implement an Improved Corrosion Control Plan by 2022, but meanwhile high lead levels are still found in too many households and schools.
After citywide outrage, PPS took all of its water sources offline in mid-2016 and has been slowly reopening them in recent months — after testing to make sure the water has less than 15 parts per billion of lead.
Even so, several drinking water sources still marked high amounts of lead even after the district replaced the fixtures. John Burnham, the school district's interim senior director of Health and Safety, said the next step on those still-offline taps will probably be to replace the pipes in the wall to try to eliminate the source of lead.
Lead-free advocates say the issue is far more complicated and dangerous than that: The taps considered safe may not be and the danger may come from the water itself.
Paul Schwartz, who has worked on water quality issues for 40 years, is now with the Campaign for Lead-Free Water. Schwartz said that lead releases can be random. Say a big truck rumbles by and shakes a tiny speck of leaded solder loose, he said. Then a tap considered safe could suddenly deposit a particle of lead in a child's body.
"You could test 20 taps in the school today," Schwartz said. "If you tested those 20 taps in a day, a week, or a month, they could all be different, either higher or lower."
Schwartz advised against exhaustive and expensive testing and retesting. But he said the school system doesn't need to spend a busload of money replacing all of its aging plumbing either. Schwartz said a good solution would be to set up drinking water stations in each school — either bottled water or bottle-filling stations with certified lead-free filters — then clearly mark all other sources as non-potable.
PPS has tried lead filters before — during the 2016 discovery of lead in school drinking water, some of them were found missing, uninstalled or out-of-date and critics said they weren't the right type anyway.
Marc Edwards, a civil engineer at Virginia Tech University, was more supportive of PPS' approach. Edwards said it made sense to test and remediate, though he agreed that lead releases could be random.
But he did not mince words when it came to the Portland Water Bureau, laying the blame for high lead levels in the city — not just in schools — squarely on their shoulders.
"They have been breaking federal corrosion control law forever," Edwards said. "How they get away with it, it's a mystery to everyone."
Jaymee Cuti, a spokeswoman with the Portland Water Bureau, said Portland is following the law, just in its own way. The city is unique in the nation for having never used lead service lines. Any lead in the system is from plumbing on a building's premises in Portland, not from water bureau-owned lines. So, the bureau successfully argued to the federal government that lead paint and soils were a higher contamination risk than water, and funds several education and mitigation efforts for paint and soil.
Portland Public Schools, for example, has used water bureau funding to paint over flaking lead paint.
The water bureau also offers free lead tests for its water customers. Cuti said "it is extremely rare to find elevated levels of lead in water from fixtures after 1985. Even when fixtures contribute to lead in water, there have not been any cases of lead poisoning where lead in water has been identified as the main source of exposure."
No safe level
But if lead releases can be random and if lead can be stored in the body and released years later, as Schwartz argues, it's possible that we will never know the true impact of lead in water. That's why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set guidance that 15 parts per billion is a water system's "action level" for lead. Systems must notify customers of the exceedance and take steps to lower the corrosivity of its water.
However, the EPA failed to adopt a health-based standard for safe levels of lead concentration in the water.
"It's total chaos," Edwards said. "Frankly, it would be nice to have a standard because each school system is having to invent (one)."
Under the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, American water systems have to test a small sample of older households for lead. If more than 10 percent of the sampled houses come back with higher than 15 parts per billion of lead, the water system is out of compliance with the rule.
The Portland Water Bureau has been out of compliance 12 times since the rule began, most recently in January.
In contrast, Eugene's water has never blown the federal action limit. Its concentrations have generally improved, from a high of 14.5 parts per billion in 1992 to a low of 3 parts per billion in 2015.
Dr. Bruce Lanphear, on the faculty at Canada's Simon Fraser University, said PPS and the Portland Water Bureau need to do better.
Lanphear said the health standard should be 5 parts per billion — and that only because it's currently infeasible to get much lower than that. He added that it should not be up to the school system alone to come up with the extra money to mitigate lead hazards.
"I'm sure that is not politically convenient, but safe water is at least important as having good medical facilities," Lanphear said, adding: "Safe lead levels in water is not really a debate. The science is clear: The EPA, the (Centers for Disease Control) and (the World Health Organization) say there is no safe level of lead children's blood. Thus, there is no safe level of lead in the water they drink."
Test your water
The Portland Water Bureau urges all of its customers to order a free lead-in-water test kit to test water at their tap from the Leadline at 503-988-4000 or www.leadline.org.