Testing has found elevated lead levels in the tap water at 14 homes in the Portland metropolitan area.
Officials say the lead isn’t coming from the city’s water supply system, but rather from old plumbing inside individual homes.
The tests took place last month in 112 “high-risk” homes, known to have lead solder in their plumbing.
More than 10 percent of those tests came back with lead levels above 15 parts per billion, the action level under federal regulations. The highest level detected was 83 parts per billion. The results trigger a federal requirement for educational outreach and corrective actions.
Experts say there is no safe level of exposure to lead, which can cause damage to the brain and kidneys – especially in infants and young children.
The latest tests were designed to find the highest lead levels in the highest risk homes, according to Scott Bradway, lead hazard reduction program manager for the Portland Water Bureau. They do not indicate the level of lead that’s likely to be found in the vast majority of homes that get their water from the Bull Run watershed.
“Fortunately, in most of the homes in our region we don’t find elevated levels of lead,” he said. “The highest risk homes are built between 1970 and 1985, and we estimate that’s about 15,000 homes in our area.”
The testing, performed every six months in high risk homes, is a way for the city to evaluate its water corrosion treatment system, Bradway said. The system has reduced lead levels in tap water by 70 percent by increasing the pH of the water. That reduces the corrosive action on plumbing components that contain lead.
The latest test results tell the city “it’s not reducing the highest of the high” below the action levels, Bradway said.
Bradway said you can check your pipes to see if they have lead soldering. But the easiest way to know if you're at risk is to get a free lead test from the city of Portland. You can call the LeadLine, (503) 988-4000, or go to Leadline.org to request a test or to learn more about getting a child tested for lead exposure.
Other steps to reduce lead in your tap water include: Let the water run for 30 seconds to 2 minutes before using it to flush the lead out; use cold water rather than hot water for cooking and preparing baby formula because lead dissolves more easily in hot water; use a water filter that removes lead, boiling water will not remove it; consider buying low-lead water fixtures and cleaning faucet aerators every few moths to remove particles containing lead.
“Ideally, all plumbing fixtures would be lead-free, but they aren’t,” said Portland Water Bureau Administrator Mike Stuhr.
The city is currently studying the causes of lead corrosion in its water system. In the next few months, the bureau plans to make recommendations to the City Council on ways to reduce lead exposure.
In 2013, a similar round of testing found elevated lead levels in 13 homes in the Portland Water Bureau service area.
After learning of the elevated lead tests, the Oregon Health Authority directed the Water Bureau to "take immediate action to accelerate corrosion control strategies and improve lead levels throughout the water system," according to a news release sent Wednesday.
In a letter to Stuhr, OHA Public Health Director Lillian Shirley outlined an accelerated timeline calling for the city to take immediate steps to increase corrosion controls and make aggressive changes in the Lead Hazard Reduction Program to further protect vulnerable populations.
OHA directed the PWB to take immediate action to accelerate corrosion control strategies and improve lead levels throughout the water system.