This week, parents upset about lead in school water fountains have called for Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith to resign.
But federal, state and city officials have known for years that schools and homes in the Portland area are at risk for lead above federal drinking water standards.
Taps in Portland — and the several metro area water districts that buy its water — have been found to have too much lead on 10 different occasions since the federal agency began enforcing the lead and copper rule in 1991, most recently in 2013.
There is good news: Portland is a lot better off than a city like Flint, Mich. That’s because the underground distribution pipes that carry water across the metro area aren’t made of lead.
But there's also bad news.
“Lead is found commonly throughout plumbing fixtures,” said Scott Bradway, a lead hazard reduction specialist at the Portland Water Bureau. “Here in Portland, where you’re going to find lead is in building plumbing.”
Until 1985, there was no regulation of lead plumbing fixtures. Lead is a component of brass, so it’s in all sorts of things like water fountains, sinks and home faucets.
In the 1970s and 1980s, lead was also used to solder copper pipes together.
“When you run water through a pipe, and it’s corrosive, then it will dissolve lead, if lead’s been used to connect it with solder or things like that,” said Jeffrey Griffiths, a public health professor at Tufts University and an expert on public water systems.
Lead was banned in 1986, after people recognized that it is a neurotoxin particularly harmful to young kids.
But lead is also hard to get rid of. It’s not just in a few big pipes, it’s also in countless home sinks and school plumbing fixtures across America.
So in the 1990s, when the EPA set out to regulate lead in drinking water, they went after the water instead of all those fixtures.
The federal lead and copper rule, which went into effect in 1991, directed cities to chemically treat their water to control the pH and make it less corrosive. That helps limit the amount of lead that leaches into drinking water.
The water in the Bull Run watershed, which goes to almost a million Oregonians, is naturally very corrosive. But Portland pushed back against chemical treatment.
At the time, the city’s water was stored in open reservoirs, which made it harder to control the pH.
“Based on input from our customers, and the leadership of the city, they directed us to look at other alternatives to it,” Bradway said.
In 1994 the Portland Water Bureau and the Oregon Health Authority reached an agreement. The bureau would use some chemicals to control the pH of the water. But city leaders didn’t take some of the more expensive steps the EPA requested. Instead, the Water Bureau agreed to spend more on outreach and education about lead paint.
“Lead paint is really the highest risk for lead exposure in our community,” Bradway said.
That’s true. Health officials say virtually every case of lead poisoning in the Portland area has been tied back to paint, not water. But the city’s unconventional approach has also drawn criticism.
“There is no safe level of lead. It’s a very straightforward public health decision,” Griffiths said. “If you aggressively treated the water a bit more, then you’d have less lead in the water, and therefore people would be drinking less lead.”
The Environmental Protection Agency also worries.
The Warter Bureau offers free lead testing to homeowners who request it. Of the roughly 10,000 Portland homes that have requested testing, 3 percent have had lead levels higher than the EPA's drinking water standard. And many more homeowners may be drinking lead-tainted water without realizing it.
In April, prompted by the Flint crisis, a manager in the EPA’s drinking water unit wrote Oregon Health Authority regulators.
The EPA told the state to request testing at high priority schools and day care centers that use water from the Portland Water Bureau. Several of the largest districts in the state get their water from Portland, including PPS, Gresham-Barlow and Tigard-Tualatin.
Staff at the Oregon Health Authority met with the EPA staff on April 18 to discuss their concerns. OHA officials said they have met with the Water Bureau twice to discuss the EPA concerns, and that Water Bureau officials have indicated they are working on complying. The Oregon Health Authority has not, however, ordered the bureau to test at older Portland area schools and day care centers that could be at high risk. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown earlier this year asked two state agencies to look into the issue of lead in school drinking water.
"We don't want to get ahead of the governor and the Department of Education," said Dave Leland, the Oregon Health Authority's drinking water program manager.
The Portland Water Bureau says it has taken steps to address the problem of lead. For example, the bureau plans ask for an increase in its budget, so it can help Portland-area schools pay for lead testing.
It’s also reconsidering the city's overall lead strategy. Once water arrives in Portland from the Bull Run, it’s now stored in covered reservoirs. The bureau is in the middle of a new corrosion study.
“We’re hoping to wrap that study up in the next year. And at that time, we’re going to look at what our options are and what we can do. We do want to reduce it as much as we can,” Bradway said.
One option the bureau is also considering: more aggressive chemical treatment of the water to reduce the amount of lead at the tap.