Lead in Portland’s drinking water called ‘worse than Flint’

October 27, 2023 5:30 am

About 90% of public drinking water in Portland comes from the Bull Run Watershed. (City of Portland)

Dangerous lead-contaminated drinking water has long been a serious concern for communities across the U.S., especially in my home city of Portland, where our water crisis has been referred to by one expert as “worse than Flint.”

Families, often unwittingly, are faced with the devastating consequences of daily lead in water exposure in their homes, schools, and workplaces. 

No level of lead is safe for consumption, and it’s especially dangerous for children 6 years old and younger. Contaminated drinking water carries profound implications, among them the potential for cardiovascular disease, problems with kidney and reproductive function, and disrupted brain development. 

This week is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, a time to recognize that lead contamination in drinking water is not a problem of the past, or exclusive to known hot spots such as Flint, Michigan. Communities across the country deserve access to safe drinking water that is free from lead and toxic pollutants.  

A strong Environmental Protection Agency Lead and Copper Rule would get the lead out of our communities, particularly in neighborhoods that are most impacted, and it would protect families across the nation from lead-contaminated drinking water.

Lead and galvanized pipes are a national issue existing in every state, and Portland serves as an example of the adverse health effects resulting from the city’s inadequate corrosion control program for the last three decades. 

For 30 years, the Portland Water Bureau has knowingly allowed its residents to consume water tainted with lead. Its long-standing denial and shifting of blame on to customer plumbing has placed our lives and well-being on the line and is nothing short of an injustice. The facts are clear: Portland has exceeded the federal action level for lead in drinking water 11 times since the 1990s. Each time, the bureau was required to remove some known sources of lead in the distribution system. However, sources still remain.

As if this weren’t bad enough, Portland’s lead water crisis is worsened by a distinctive agreement forged with the state health authority in 1997, which exempts the city from adhering to federal regulations aimed at reducing lead levels at consumers’ taps. Despite assertions by the water bureau that it has adhered to the current Lead and Copper Rule, meeting the action level of 15 parts per billion, the truth is that Portland has failed to tackle its lead issue. Indefensibly, our officials continue to keep us in the dark.

The issue of lead-contaminated water encompasses deeply rooted social and racial injustice, as it disproportionately affects pregnant women, children and communities of color. A report from the Black Women’s Health Imperative found that, “children in high-poverty areas are nearly 2.5 times as likely to have elevated blood lead levels than children in low-poverty areas, and children in predominantly Black Zip codes are about 9 percent more likely than children in predominantly white Zip codes to have detectable lead in their blood.” Lead in water isn’t the only source of lead exposure, however it remains a persistent and significant contributor to the problem.

These communities bear the brunt of this crisis, facing not only immediate health risks, but long-term economic and educational disparities. Enough is enough. 

A strong Lead and Copper Rule would address major roadblocks to solving access to safe drinking water, including substantially strengthened lead monitoring and corrosion control requirements, ensured replacement of every lead service line in the country within the next 10 years at the expense of utilities and the removal of all lead connectors and galvanized pipes, ubiquitous throughout our metro area. Revisions would also prioritize the creation of incentives and grants to school districts that both install and maintain water filtration systems and mandate that educational institutions subject to direct EPA oversight implement these systems –  ensuring the safety of our children both at home and in school. 

Safe drinking water is a fundamental human right, and a strong Lead and Copper Rule will ensure that it is accessible to all, in every community, without exception. 




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Lorie McFarlane
Lorie McFarlane

Lorie McFarlane is cofounder of Portland Advocates for Lead-free Drinking Water, which has been working with national safe drinking water coalitions since 2018.