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TVWD: Lead not coming from water source

The toxin usually gets into water from home and building pipes; precautions can help reduce exposure

TIMES PHOTO: ERIC APALATEGUI - Five water and health experts discussed issues around lead in drinking water during a community forum on July 14. Tualatin Valley Water District's supply has very safe levels of lead, but the heavy metal can leach into water from plumbing inside homes and buildings, officials said.The Tualatin Valley Water District’s water contains little to no lead on its way to your home, business or school.

But it might be a different story when it gets there.

“In our region, the biggest risk we receive from lead (in drinking water) is in the homes and buildings,” said Joel Cary, who oversees water safety issues for TVWD.

While TVWD’s distribution lines are lead-free, for many decades the plumbing in many older buildings across the region was assembled with components containing lead, a heavy metal that can leach invisibly into drinking water.

At high enough levels, lead is a harmful neurotoxin when swallowed or breathed in. Unhealthy exposure can be particularly hazardous to developing fetuses and children, said Dr. Christina Baumann, deputy health officer for Washington County.

Baumann and Cary were among a panel of experts that discussed lead in the drinking water supply during a July 14 public forum at TVWD’s headquarters. A few dozen citizens attended and asked questions.

People drinking TVWD water include more than 200,000 residents of a large area that takes in unincorporated communities such as Aloha, Rock Creek, Bethany and Cedar Mill as well as in parts of incorporated Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard and Metzger.

Other water agencies in Washington County receive their water from similar sources and also have reported low levels of lead in their supply.

Lead levels in water supply systems have long been tested, but testing water where it’s consumed is much less common.

The issue has received extra scrutiny lately, particularly after dangerously high levels were detected in Flint, Mich., and concerning levels were found much closer to home in Portland and even in Beaverton’s Highland Park Middle School.

The Beaverton School District has shut off the drinking water at Highland Park and is providing bottled water there until the 50-year-old school’s plumbing is replaced with lead-free pipes next summer. District officials have taken similar precautions with several other schools with older pipes.

The school district also hired a company to collect water samples in every school and support building and is awaiting test results, reported Nathan Potter, a member of the water panel who is overseeing the project for BSD.

TVWD found one home last spring where lead levels were tested at an alarming 113 parts per billion, more than seven times the 15 parts per billion level the Environmental Protection Agency has set as its “action level” to safeguard health.

Upon investigation it turned out the test used water collected from the hot water tap in a little-used bathroom, according to district engineer Bill Richmond. When the pipes were flushed with cold water, lead dipped to barely detectable levels, he said.

Using cold water from well-flushed pipes for drinking and cooking is a simple way to reduce exposure to lead, even in homes with pipes that include the heavy metal in solder, fixtures or other components, experts said. Having your water tested and taking other simple steps outlined with this article also can help.

Cary said that TVWD will increase outreach efforts about lead in drinking water and in 2017 will change its testing regimen, part of which will include more than doubling the number of tests conducted.

In another decade, TVWD and the city of Hillsboro, along with other potential partners including Beaverton, will begin tapping the mid-Willamette River near Wilsonville to augment its current water sources. That water source, which will be treated, similarly contains little to no detectable lead levels, said Dave Kraska, who is overseeing that project.

Reduce lead in drinking water

Tualatin Valley Water District officials recommend the following steps to help reduce the lead levels in water used for drinking, cooking and baby formula:

• Use only cold water. Hot water can leach more lead into water.

• Flush pipes until the water is noticeably colder. This may take 30 seconds to two minutes.

• Boiling water won’t remove lead. In fact, it may concentrate the heavy metal.

• Remove the faucet aerator periodically and clean it out remove trapped particles.

• Not all water filtration systems are designed to remove lead, so shop carefully if going this route.

• Have your water tested for lead. Call 503-988-4000 for a free kit.

Other lead sources

Old paint is one of the most common sources of lead poisoning. The metal was a common additive to improve color and coverage until it was banned in 1978. Much of that old paint is still on homes and other structures build in the mid-20th Century.

Old lead paint should be removed by qualified contractors or at least covered with new paint, which doesn’t contain lead. Sanding lead paint increases exposure. Even soil near lead paint also can contain unsafe lead levels and should be covered or removed, Baumann said.

Some imported goods have been found to contain high levels of lead. These can include toys, jewelry, pottery, folk medicine, cosmetics and even candy.

Work and hobbies can be a source of exposure. Take precautions to limit contact when working with stained glass, fishing weights, remodeling and automotive projects and ammunition and firing ranges, Baumann said.

Some industrial activity and old pesticides also are a potential source of lead exposure.

Eating diets rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C, can reduce the amount of lead a person absorbs, Baumann said.

Also, frequent hand-washing has a beneficial effect on reducing ingestion of lead from other exposures in addition to helping limit the spread of communicable illnesses, she added.