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The facts about lead in drinking water in Portland

News Article
A person filling up a glass of water under a kitchen faucet.
A broadly shared article on the topic of lead in Portland's drinking water mischaracterizes the safety of our system. Here’s what you need to know.
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Providing safe drinking water to our community is a responsibility that we take seriously, so we want to clear up any confusion and give you the information you need to protect yourself and your family from lead. We work in close coordination with our regulators at Oregon Health Authority and public health partners at Multnomah County Health Department to protect everyone who drinks our water.

First, it’s important that you know that there are no safe levels of lead. In Portland, the most common sources of very high lead exposure are lead-based paint, household dust, soil, and plumbing materials. Lead can also be found in other household objects such as toys, cosmetics, and pottery. Read up on the sources of lead by visiting leadline.org.

Lead can cause serious health problems if it enters your body from drinking water or other sources. It can cause damage to the brain and kidneys and can interfere with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of the body. The greatest risk of lead exposure is to infants, young children, and pregnant people. Click here to learn more about the health risks.

Lead in water

In Portland, the main source of lead in water is copper pipe with lead solder that’s most found in homes and buildings built between 1970 and 1985. Less than 10 percent of homes in our community have this type of plumbing. There are some homes and buildings built outside of that time period that may have lead fixtures or plumbing that was installed in the 70’s and 80’s, so it’s always a good idea to request a free kit to test your water for lead.

The Bull Run water source is naturally corrosive and can leach lead out of plumbing materials, if present. We treat our water to make it less corrosive, and will be increasing this treatment with a new treatment plant coming online in April of this year.

We want to be clear:

  • The Bull Run Watershed and the Columbia South Shore Well Field are not significant sources of lead.
  • Portland has never had lead service lines and has worked to remove other significant sources of lead in its distribution system.  (This critical fact makes our system very different from others around the country, such as Flint, Michigan, where it was estimated that up to 85 percent of homes had lead service lines.)

We play a critical role in reducing the risk of exposure to lead through drinking water.

What we’re doing

  • Since 1997, we’ve treated the water to make it less corrosive to lead and copper and actively managing drinking water in the distribution system to maintain the effectiveness of our corrosion control treatment.
  • We offer free lead-in-water testing to all residential water users and childcare providers in Portland.
  • We share information on lead through mailings and outreach to multifamily residences and all homes built between 1970 and 1985.
  • We proactively partner with the Oregon Health Authority and Multnomah County Health Department to protect the public from exposure to lead through testing, and education and outreach. 
  • This April, our Improved Corrosion Control Treatment project will provide our strongest tool yet to make drinking water safer for everyone, regardless of the plumbing inside homes, schools or buildings.Read more on Improved Corrosion Control at this link.

While we continue to invest in a safe and resilient water system, we hope you’ll join us in taking important steps to protect yourself and your family from lead.

What you can do

  • Run water to flush the lead out. If the water has not been used for several hours, run each tap for 30 seconds to 2 minutes or until it becomes colder before drinking or cooking. This simple step can reduce lead in water up to 90 percent or more. 
  • Use cold, fresh water for cooking and preparing baby formula. Lead dissolves more easily into hot water than cold water. Do not cook with or drink water from the hot water tap.  Do not use water from the hot water tap to make baby formula.
  • Do not boil water to remove lead. Boiling water will not reduce lead.
  • Consider using a filter. Check whether it reduces lead – not all filters do. Be sure to maintain and replace a filter device in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions to protect water quality. Contact NSF International at 800-NSF-8010 or nsf.org for information on performance standards for water filters.
  • Test children for lead. Ask a physician or contact the LeadLine at leadline.org or 503-988-4000 to find out how to have your child tested for lead. A blood lead level test is the only way to know if a child is being exposed to lead.
  • Test your water for lead. Call the LeadLine at leadline.org or 503-988-4000 to find out how to get a FREE lead-in-water test.
  • Regularly clean the faucet aerator. Particles containing lead from solder or household plumbing can become trapped in faucet aerators. Regularly cleaning every few months will remove these particles and reduce the exposure to lead.
  • Consider buying low-lead fixtures. As of 2014, all pipes, fittings and fixtures are required to contain less than 0.25 percent lead. When buying new fixtures, consumers should seek out those with the lowest lead content.
  • Know the other sources of lead exposure in our community. In Portland, the most common sources of lead exposure are lead-based paint, household dust, soil, and plumbing materials. Lead is also found in other household objects such as toys, cosmetics, and pottery. 
  • To get your water tested for lead or for more information on reducing lead exposure around your home or building and the health effects of lead, contact the LeadLine at leadline.org or 503-988-4000.

What even more information about lead? Check out our website: portland.gov/water/lead.