It’s been six years since Dr. Marc Edwards first identified toxic levels of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan.
Since then, the Virginia Tech Professor — credited alongside his colleague with calling the world’s attention to a brewing water crisis in Flint — has grown bewildered by lead levels in a different city: Portland, Oregon. Edwards, who specializes in water treatment, is blunt: “This is worse than Flint.”
“In Flint, it went on for 18 months.” he said. “It was a national and international outcry, thousands of stories, dozens of documentary movies. ... In Portland, they’re over the action level again and it’s been going on for several decades.”
In recent years, Flint’s water has become synonymous with environmental disaster. Portland’s water, meanwhile, is considered some of the most pristine in the nation, even though the city’s lead levels usually remain just below — and occasionally surpass — the federal safety limit of 15 parts per billion (or ppb). If test samples come back with lead levels higher than 15 ppb, the Environmental Protection Agency requires the utility to take action to reduce the amount of lead, such as updating old pipes or treating the water.
Portland Water Bureau disputes the comparison with Flint’s water problem. In Flint, the water was contaminated by lead service lines that affected most homes and buildings in the community. Water bureau spokesperson Jaymee Cuti says the main source of lead in Portland’s water is copper pipes with lead solder in less than 10% of homes and buildings.
But the city is facing its own, unique chronic lead problem, and state health regulators are asking for a quick fix.
This past November, the water bureau received alarming water samples. Out of 104 homes with lead components in their home plumbing sampled by the water bureau, 10% had lead levels higher than 21 parts per billion — the highest results the city has seen in two decades and well above the federal limit.
Two homes sampled had lead levels more than five times the EPA’s limit — 105 ppb and 81 ppb, according to a letter from the Oregon Health Authority obtained by OPB.
For Edwards, the results were the latest reminder that Portland water officials have failed for years to meaningfully reduce the city’s lead levels. For the Oregon Health Authority, it was a sign they needed to step in.
Health regulators crack down
On Dec. 14, the Oregon Health Authority’s drinking water division sent a letter to Portland Water Bureau Director Gabriel Solmer.
“Drinking Water Services (DWS) is very concerned at the recent exceedance of the lead action level,” wrote Technical Manager Kari Salis. “As you are aware, there is no safe level of exposure of lead.”
Since the late 1990s, samples have shown Portland exceeding the federal safety threshold for lead 11 times. In 2017, after Portland had once again surpassed that threshold, OHA required the water bureau to build a corrosion control treatment facility, according to Salis’ letter. Water from the Bull Run watershed is naturally corrosive, which can cause lead from copper plumbing and fixtures to leech into people’s homes. By building a facility to make Portland’s water less corrosive, the bureau expects to reduce the amount of lead dissolving from old plumbing into stagnant water. The facility is slated to be completed by April.
But with lead samples at the highest levels they’ve been since 2000, the Oregon Health Authority is requesting a quicker fix.
The agency asked the water bureau to provide a plan for “additional short-term measures” by Friday. OHA spokesperson Jonathan Modie said the agency expects, at minimum, that the plan will include “further adjustments to treatment, and enhanced public education and outreach.”
Water bureau spokesperson Jaymee Cuti said the two agencies “are working together on a plan to best protect vulnerable people and everyone who drinks our water.”
The bureau says their test results show that less than 7% of the homes built between 1970 and 1985 have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.
Lead expert recommends water filters
Lead can affect nearly every organ, with exposure particularly harmful to the bodies and minds of pregnant people and children. The toxin puts children at an increased risk of learning and behavioral problems, including attention deficit disorder, and it puts mothers at a higher likelihood of a miscarriage, according to the EPA.
While the EPA demands utilities take action when lead levels surpass 15 ppb, Dr. Bruce Lanphear, who has been studying lead poisoning for 25 years, said lead in drinking water can have detrimental health impacts once levels hit 5 ppb. He recommends Portlanders in high-risk homes use filters for their water.
The water bureau says the homes most at risk for lead in the water are those with copper pipes joined with lead solder, which were generally built or plumbed between 1970 and 1985. That’s potentially up to 15,000 homes, according to the bureau. Twice a year, Portland will sample water from the highest risk homes — those built between 1983 and 1985.
Edwards, the Virginia Tech Professor, said Portland holds the distinction as the largest major city consistently displaying high concentrations of lead in their water samples for high-risk homes. He pins the blame on the Portland Water Bureau and an unusual arrangement struck decades ago with the state health authority.
Through the Lead and Copper Rule, the EPA regulates the amount of lead permitted in drinking water and requires utilities take action if lead levels surpass a threshold of 15 ppb. In 1997, the state allowed Portland to come up with a unique response to the rule. Instead of treating the water the way other cities were doing, Portland started a program that would focus on education, outreach, and fixing lead paint in homes with children, according to a 2016 investigation by The Oregonian.
That investigation found that this one-of-a-kind deal meant Portland had effectively bypassed the EPA’s blanket regulation for minimizing lead in the water supply. The water bureau did not need to follow federal rules that require adding chemicals to the water to reduce pipe corrosion and prevent the release of lead, according to the news report.
Cuti, the water bureau spokesperson, said the city has been in compliance with the lead and copper rule since its inception.
“Our regulators approved a plan to address the most common sources of lead exposure in our community, including lead-based paint and drinking water,” she wrote.
New treatment facility planned
Since then, the city has changed its tack. The water bureau has said they expect the new corrosion control facility, where water will be treated with sodium carbonate and carbon dioxide, to significantly reduce the lead levels in Portland.
To measure the impact this facility will have, the water bureau has initiated a 40-person, two-year study so officials can see how the lead levels in high-risk homes improve once the facility comes online.
For Christine Prapas, the change in treatment can’t come soon enough.
Prapas, a retired artist, has been living in her Southwest Portland neighborhood of Garden Home house since 1991. Her house was 10 years old when she bought it, built in an era when lead in piping was common.
Last January, Prapas got a note from the water bureau asking her to participate in the study. In return for sending in monthly water samples, she would get a reduced water bill and a monthly analysis of the lead in her water.
She began sending samples from her kitchen sink in June of last year. She has watched the numbers on her tests rise ever since. Seven months of results reviewed by OPB show her samples rising from 12.9 ppb on June 14 to 18.9 ppb on Dec. 2.
Since the first result, Prapas has started using a lead filter for her faucet. But she worries about the people in older homes like hers who never got a letter from the water bureau.
“You can’t boil lead out,” she said. “This affects the infants, it affects us all.”
The water bureau said they are working in close coordination with OHA and expect to be able to provide their plan to reduce lead early next week once it’s reviewed by the health authority.
The water bureau offers free lead-in-water testing to all residential customers and childcare providers. People can contact the LeadLine at leadline.org or 503-988-4000 to receive a free lead-in-water test.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a response from the Portland Water Bureau and to clarify the contents of the Oregon Health Authority’s letter to the city.