Tacoma’s publicly owned water supply has long been a source of pride for residents. They easily understood why a major bottling company decided in 2013 to tap into the city’s water for its product.
Now comes news that Tacoma Water recently found high levels of lead in four samples taken from a neighborhood near Lincoln High School. After the public health emergency in Flint, Michigan, it’s understandable that people here might be alarmed.
Concern might be the more appropriate reaction. But alarm? Not yet.
For one thing, utility officials stress, the problem isn’t with the water itself. It’s with pipes — specifically the lead goosenecks commonly installed in homes nationwide from the early 1900s to about 1950.
The goosenecks connect water mains to home water meters. The utility already removed most of them during routine upgrades to the system. Poor record-keeping from that era, however, makes it hard to know where the remaining ones — up to about 1,700 goosenecks, or roughly 2 percent of the utility’s hookups — might still be.
I would rather err on the side of freaking people out than err on the side of hiding.
Deputy Tacoma Water superintendent Chris McMeen
Tacoma Water officials stress that the samples they took were not from residents’ indoor taps but at the homes’ meters, although they will be doing followup testing of tap water. The lead levels found in a few samples — 100 to 400 parts per billion — are much higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable limit of 15 parts per billion. But simply running the tap for two minutes after a six-hour period of inactivity will render the water safe to drink, Tacoma Water officials say.
An NSF-certified water filter, which can remove lead from water, is an option for concerned customers. They can also have their water tested by a state-accredited lab.
Taking its cue from Tacoma, Seattle Public Utilities is also recommending that all Seattle residents flush their water for two minutes. It estimates that about 2,000 of its service lines have the same kind of gooseneck fittings believed to be causing Tacoma’s higher lead test levels. And it’s likely that any water district that includes older homes could face the same problem. Tacoma is unusual only because it went looking for it.
And that’s to Tacoma utility officials’ credit. They were right to be proactive in testing for lead in the wake of news out of Flint, even though it was not required by state or federal regulators and regular tests over the years have shown very low levels of lead in the system. There is no “safe” level of lead in drinking water, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and it can be especially dangerous for children’s developing brains.
Officials here should also be commended for acting quickly to get the word out to residents — even knowing that the news might be disturbing.
As deputy Tacoma Water superintendent Chris McMeen put it, “I would rather err on the side of freaking people out than err on the side of hiding.”
Tacoma Water customers should appreciate that attitude and give the utility time to gather more information. In the meantime, flushing the water line first thing in the morning is a good idea for any water customer.