Important information about lead in household plumbing and your drinking water
What you need to know
Recent monitoring results from homes exceeded the regulatory level for lead in drinking water. We are making treatment improvements by April 2022 to reduce the levels of lead in drinking water. This treatment change will increase the pH and alkalinity of our water.
The Portland Water Bureau found elevated levels of lead in drinking water in some homes/buildings. Lead can cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant people and young children. Please read this information closely to see what you can do to reduce lead in your drinking water.
Health effects of lead
Lead can cause serious health problems if too much 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. Scientists have linked the effects of lead on the brain with lowered IQ in children. Adults with kidney problems and high blood pressure can be affected by low levels of lead more than healthy adults. Lead is stored in the bones, and it can be released later in life. During pregnancy, the child receives lead from the pregnant person’s bones, which may affect brain development.
Sources of lead
Lead is commonly found in a variety of places throughout our environment. While lead is rarely found in our source waters and there are no known lead service lines up to the meter, lead can be found in some homes.
In Portland, lead enters drinking water from the corrosion (wearing away) of household plumbing materials that contain lead. These materials include lead-based solder used to join copper pipe - commonly used in homes built or plumbed between 1970 and 1985 - and brass components and faucets. Because Portland’s water is naturally corrosive, lead in household plumbing can dissolve into drinking water when water sits in those pipes for several hours – such as overnight or while people are away at work or school.
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.
Easy steps for reducing lead exposure from drinking water
- Run your 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. Running your tap flushes water that may contain lead from your pipes. Running your water like this can reduce lead-in-water levels up to 90 percent.
- Use cold, fresh water for cooking and for preparing baby formula. Lead dissolves more easily into hot water. Do not use water from the hot water tap for cooking, drinking, or to make baby formula.
- Do not boil water to remove lead. Boiling water will not reduce lead.
- Test your water for lead. Order a FREE lead-in-water test from the LeadLine online or at 503-988-4000.
- Test your child for lead. Ask your doctor or contact the LeadLine to find out how to have your child tested for lead. A blood lead level test is the only way to know if your child is being exposed to lead.
- Consider using a filter. Check whether it reduces lead – not all filters do. To protect water quality, maintain and replace a filter device in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Learn more about how to choose a water filter on our home water filtration and treatment page.
- Regularly clean your faucet aerator. Particles containing lead from solder or household plumbing can become trapped in your faucet aerator. Regular cleaning or replacement every few months will remove these particles and reduce your 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, look for ones with the lowest lead content.
Lead testing results
Twice each year, the Portland Water Bureau collects water samples from a group of over 100 homes that have lead solder. Because more than 10% of the homes tested had higher results, we exceeded the action level for lead in drinking water and are required to act to reduce levels of lead. We are also conducting a public education campaign about lead in drinking water.
Drinking water treatment improvements starting this spring
After exceeding the lead action level in 2013, we worked to identify ways to further reduce the amount of lead that can enter the water from household or building plumbing. We determined that improving our drinking water treatment is the most effective way to reduce lead levels. In 2016 we agreed with the Oregon Health Authority to install improved treatment and are turning it on this spring. This improved treatment will reduce lead at the tap by increasing the water’s pH to at least 8.5 and adjusting the alkalinity to 25 mg/L.
Resources to reduce your exposure
In addition to reducing lead exposure in drinking water, the Water Bureau, through the LeadLine, supports programs to reduce all sources of exposure to lead:
- Lead poisoning prevention workshops
- Programs to reduce hazards in eligible homes
- FREE childhood blood lead level testing
- FREE lead-in-water test kits for customers
For more information, call the Water Bureau at 503-823-7525. For more information on reducing lead exposure around your home/building and the health effects of lead, visit the EPA’s website or contact your health care provider.
How does lead get into my water?
Water-related lead exposure in Portland is linked to building plumbing and fixtures, not to lead in our source water or distribution system. Portland’s drinking water is essentially lead-free when it flows out of our two, high-quality drinking water sources and travels through the water mains and distribution system in the city. Portland is fortunate to never have used lead service lines. We have removed all known lead service connectors, also known as lead pigtails or goosenecks.
In Portland, common sources of lead in home plumbing are (1) lead solder connecting copper pipes and (2) brass in plumbing components or fixtures. Water generally needs to be in contact with the source of lead for several hours for lead to be absorbed in the water. A water test is the only way for you to find out if your plumbing is adding lead to your water.
How can I test my water for lead?
We provide free lead-in-water testing to residents, child care providers, and schools. Find more information and request a kit on our request a test kit page.
How the Water Bureau addresses lead in water
Lead Hazard Reduction Program
We have complied with the Lead and Copper Rule since 1997 through our Lead Hazard Reduction Program. This program is focused on reducing exposure to lead from all sources. The program has four parts:
- Corrosion control treatment and monitoring. We reduce corrosion of lead in plumbing by adding sodium hydroxide, which increases the pH of the water. This pH adjustment has reduced lead in tap water by up to 70 percent. To further reduce lead levels, Portland is in the process of improving corrosion control treatment. These improvements will be in place no later than 2022. We also test for lead and copper in water collected from a group of over 100 homes that have lead solder and where lead levels are the highest. Find these test results on our drinking water test results page.
- Lead-in-water education and testing. We provide free lead-in-water testing to anyone, but target testing the water in households most at risk from lead in water (homes built between 1970 and 1985). We also send our educational lead brochure to all customers each year.
- Education and outreach about all sources of lead. We help fund agencies and organizations that provide education, outreach, testing, and remediation on all sources of lead. Current program partners are:
- Community Alliance of Tenants: educates and empowers tenants to secure safe housing
- Community Energy Project educates and empowers people to maintain healthier and more livable homes
- Growing Gardens provides free lead-in-soil testing for income-qualified residents
- Multnomah County Health Department: serves as a general resource for lead information and testing
- Portland Public Schools remediates lead paint hazards in facilities attended by young children
- Lead paint remediation. The Portland Housing Bureau’s Lead Hazard Control Program provides an evaluation of lead hazards and offers financial assistance to reduce lead-based paint hazards in housing.
Other water system improvements
Alongside Lead Hazard Reduction Program work, we have initiated several efforts to reduce or remove sources of lead from the water system. We:
- Partnered with the State of Oregon to enact Oregon’s lead-based solder ban, which was passed by the state legislature in 1985.
- Inventoried pipe materials in Portland’s distribution system. In 1994, Portland’s materials inventory found the following:
- Conduits are made of steel that is lined with mortar or coal tar.
- Transmission, supply, and distribution mains are made of steel that is unlined or lined with mortar; concrete; ductile iron lined with mortar; or cast iron that is unlined or lined with mortar.
- Service linesare made of copper or galvanized iron.
- Some service connectors (pigtails) were made of lead.
- Removed known sources of lead from the system. All known lead service connectors (pigtails) were removed from the system by 1998.
- Replaced large meters containing lead components that serve water to at-risk populations. For more than ten years, all replacement meters have been lead-free.
Portland’s history with the Lead and Copper Rule
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule focuses on water treatment to control corrosion of lead and copper from home and building plumbing materials into tap water. The rule required large water providers like us to use optimal corrosion control treatment by 1997.
In 1994, we conducted a corrosion control study to determine the corrosion control treatment we would use. In June 1994, the Portland City Council directed us to conduct a study to investigate alternatives to corrosion control treatment alone. We evaluated alternatives based on several factors, including protection of public health and public and regulatory acceptance.
Based on this evaluation, we developed the Lead Hazard Reduction Program in partnership with state and county health officials and community partners. In 1997, the State of Oregon approved this program as equivalent optimal corrosion control treatment for lead and copper.
In 2014, in anticipation of changes to the water system (such as decommissioning the open reservoirs), we conducted a water quality corrosion study. In 2016, the results from the study indicated that additional treatment is the most effective means of further reducing lead in water from home and building plumbing. We are now in the process of installing improved corrosion control treatment, which will be online by April 2022.
In 2016, we met with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the EPA to provide updates on Portland’s approach to complying with the Lead and Copper Rule and outlined our current water quality corrosion study and next steps for treatment improvements. In December 2016, we submitted an Interim Lead Reduction Plan to OHA. We continue to update our regulators on the progress of the Lead Hazard Reduction Program and the steps we’re taking to improve corrosion control. You can find relevant communications, such as presentations from the OHA and EPA meetings, in the key documents section below.
Home plumbing can add lead to your drinking water diagram (text version)
- Water main: Portland Water Bureau never used lead pipes in the water mains. [Illustration of a large pipe under the street.]
- Lead pigtails: used prior to World War Two. All known pigtails removed by 1998. [Illustration of a short, curved, gray pipe connected to the water main on one side and a straight pipe, the service line, on the other side.]
- Service lines: Portland Water Bureau never used lead pipes for the service line. [Illustration of an underground pipe that connects the water main to the water meter and then the water meter to the house.]
- Water meter: Portland Water Bureau has used lead-free meters since 1986. As a result, over 95% of homes have a lead-free meter. [Illustration of a water meter dial, which looks a bit like a watch face with numbers around the outside and a red arm in the middle.]
May contain lead:
- Faucets and fixtures: faucets installed before 2014 could contain leaded brass. [Illustration of a kitchen faucet.]
- Lead solder: lead solder was commonly used to join copper pipe before 1985. [Illustration of a bended copper pipe with two solder joints above and below the bend.]