The sample size is small, but the results concern Tacoma Water officials.
Testing the utility decided to do earlier this month in the wake of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis showed high levels of lead at water lines leading to four homes in the Lincoln District, the utility announced Wednesday. Some of the samples tested above 100 parts per billion. One was nearly 400 parts per billion.
The Environmental Protection Agency requires action be taken if lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion.
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Tacoma Water officials were startled by the test results.
“We weren’t anticipating (these results),” Tacoma Water Superintendent Linda McCrea said.
Tacoma Water estimates that 2 percent of its customers — or about 1,700 connections — might have the source of the problem: 1- to 2-foot sections of lead pipe, called goosenecks, that connect the water main to water meters outside homes.
Utility officials say they don’t yet know if all 1,700 goosenecks will show the same high lead levels, but they are proceeding as if they will.
Homes built from around 1900 until just after World War II are most likely to have lead gooseneck connections, said Chris McMeen, deputy water superintendent at Tacoma Public Utilities. The utility has already removed tens of thousands of those lead connectors over previous decades. Records detailing where the goosenecks were installed are sketchy.
Those homes have not been candidates for testing under the utility’s regular lead monitoring program, which by federal rule focuses on early 1980s homes mostly likely to have lead solder in residential plumbing.
The utility reported the high lead levels to the state Department of Health on Wednesday morning. They also notified the affected residents and later met with The News Tribune.
Lead exposure in children is a serious health concern. Studies have shown there is no safe level of lead for growing brains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.
Tacoma Water did the testing the week of April 5 at four homes to try to determine where goosenecks might be in its system. Workers took one round of samples at the sites of the homes’ meters, then a second round at the same location after agitating the water in the pipe. No tests were done inside homes.
After the second set of samples, the gooseneck connections that were discovered at three of the homes were replaced, as were the galvanized pipes between the gooseneck and the meter.
One home did not have a lead gooseneck and still tested at nearly 100 parts per billion. However, it did have a galvanized pipe, leading the utility to wonder if goosenecks are the only culprit, McMeen said.
McMeen said he’s looking into research from Virginia Tech that examines the lead content of zinc coatings on those pipes. Tacoma Public Utilities stopped using galvanized pipe for service lines in the 1930s.
Unlike many older East Coast communities, Tacoma does not have water service lines constructed entirely of lead. In Flint, tests revealed lead levels in the thousands of parts per billion.
Utility officials here have long thought plumbing inside homes, not the utility’s portion of the system, was the most common source of lead contamination.
Tacoma Water officials said Wednesday they are making plans for more testing of both their portion of the system and within homes. They were unsure how long the process will take.
Brad Harp, water resources program manager for Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, said his agency has been talking to water districts across the county. He believes other districts with older systems could have a problem similar to Tacoma’s.
McCrea said Tacoma Water expects tougher federal lead and copper regulations and is trying to get a jump on finding lead in its system. The testing experiment was devised as a possible way to find lead gooseneck connections.
“The only way for us to conclusively know where they are would be to dig them all up,” McCrea said. “That’s a very expensive effort.”
Tacoma Water continues to advise all residents to run a tap in their homes for at least two minutes if water has been sitting in the pipes for six hours or more, Tacoma Public Utilities spokeswoman Chris Gleason said. A shower would suffice. Lead can accumulate in tap water the longer it stays stagnant in the pipes.
Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department spokeswoman Edie Jeffers said the department is monitoring the situation but that historically lead in dirt and paint has been a much greater threat than in water.
Utility and health officials recommended that water customers with health concerns prompted by the news consult their doctors.
Low levels of lead poisoning often do not have symptoms, but the effects can be insidious. Low levels of lead detected in children’s blood are associated with decreased intelligence, reading and learning disabilities, behavioral problems, delayed puberty and slow growth.
The levels found at the South Tacoma homes earlier this month were higher than the lead levels discovered in Tacoma that led to the construction of a corrosion control plant in 1997, McMeen said.
Steps to reduce lead in drinking water
Run your water after you wake up. Take a shower, flush the toilet or open the taps for a couple of minutes — until it feels colder — to flush out stagnant water before you drink it.
Use only cold tap water for cooking, drinking and baby formula. Consider filling a pitcher of water after the tap has been flushed and drink from that water.
Residents can buy water filters to remove lead from water. Make sure they are NSF certified to remove “total lead.”
Residents also can pay to test their drinking water. Two state certified labs in Tacoma accept water samples from the general public and are certified to test for lead:
▪ Spectra Analytical Inc., 2221 Ross Way, Tacoma, spectra-lab.com, 253-272-4850.
▪ Water Management Laboratories, 1515 80th St., E., Tacoma, 253-531-3121.
Source: Tacoma Public Utilities