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Medford uncovers lead pipes in system

The discovery of a handful of lead pipes in the city water system has alarmed the Medford Water Commission enough for it to pursue a thorough analysis of any health risks and to encourage homeowners to run their faucets before drinking the water. 

A commission member says there is no evidence of a health risk — testing of Medford water routinely shows lead levels well within safe standards — but concerns have been raised about why the information was not made public earlier.

The commission is recommending that all Medford homeowners run their water for 30 seconds to two minutes before drinking it to flush the pipes, or until it runs cold, particularly after the water has been in the pipes for an extended period.

Leigh Johnson, chairman of the commission board, said he and other board members became aware of lead fittings in the system about a month ago, even though the board had earlier received inaccurate information from staff that led them to believe no lead pipes were in the ground.

“We all thought, ‘How many are there and how long has this been going on?' ” he said.

Johnson said the board also wasn’t aware that several lead connectors known as “pigtails” had been removed from the system in recent years. The pigtails, which were commonly used prior to 1946, connected the main water line in the street to the meter. At the time, lead lines were used because of their flexibility.

A fire hydrant near Lausmann Annex, which contains city offices adjacent to City Hall, also was found last August to have lead and was replaced, Johnson said. The water system could also have older brass fittings or valves that have lead in them.

The Water Commission is in the Lausmann Annex, where it conducted a test of the water inside the building when elevated levels of copper were found last August. At the fire hydrant at the street, more tests were done that found elevated levels of lead. The hydrant and other fittings were replaced at the time.

The Mail Tribune has filed a public records request with the Water Commission seeking information on when knowledge of the lead pipes first became known and why the board and the public weren’t notified about the lead fixtures in the water system earlier.

Despite the concerns, Johnson said, every test conducted to date on the quality of the water has shown contaminant levels far below federal limits.

However, older homes could have pipes or fixtures that have significant lead or other metals in them, and which would be the homeowners’ responsibility to have replaced. For children, low levels of lead exposure have been linked to damage to the nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing and impaired formation and function of blood cells.

The issue of lead in drinking water has made headlines recently after toxic levels were found in Flint, Mich.

The Water Commission board has requested proposals from companies to provide a thorough analysis of the entire system to gauge how extensive the problem is and what can be done to fix it.

“When we found out about it about a month ago, we immediately got an RFP (request for proposals) put together for a qualified firm,” Johnson said.

A related study has also been requested to determine the impact of corrosive water on pipes and fittings in the system. Medford’s water has a soft pH rating that could leach out metals. The cost for the corrosion study is estimated at $100,000 to $250,000 and could take two years. A study to determine how many lead pipes are in the system could cost a similar amount.

Johnson said every test done on Medford’s source water at Big Butte Springs and from the Rogue River has turned up clean.

“But a lot of things happen when the water is in a pipe and then goes into a house,” he said.

Sara Bristol, spokeswoman for the Medford Water Commission, said there is no indication that Medford residents are drinking unhealthful water.

“Are we concerned about it: Yes,” she said. “Are we Flint: No.”

Larry Rains, manager of the Water Commission, stated in a May 26 written report, “No known lead piping exists in our system.”

The report, however, also noted: "There are not a lot of detailed maps or records of piping materials or joint types and no known listing of locations where there used to be lead service line connections (pigtails)."

“Larry has said we have no known lines in our system,” Bristol said, "but it’s because we don’t know where they are."

She said that the operations manager at the Water Commission estimates that four pigtails have been replaced in the past three years, but she said the commission hasn’t kept a record of where and how many have been replaced.

The pigtails, which measure from 1 to 2 feet in length, are anywhere from 3 feet to 4 feet underground. One way that technicians can determine whether a lead pigtail exists is to see whether a galvanized pipe runs on the street side of the meter.

Bristol said that when water sits in a line for an extended period, it can leach out metals, which is why the commission suggests flushing out the line, which can be done by flushing a toilet or taking a shower.

The amount of lead detected in the Water Commission’s samples has always fallen well below the “action level” determined by the EPA. The EPA requires at least 90 percent of the homes tested to have lead levels of less than 15 parts per billion. In 2013, the date of the most recent sampling, Medford had 1.4 parts per billion.

The EPA requires the commission to collect samples from 30 houses built between 1982-86, which were among the last to use lead solder to connect copper pipes.

Lead pipes in older homes can be identified by their dull gray color. Lead is a soft metal. If scratched with a key or coin, the lead pipes will turn a bright silver color.

Nearly all homes built prior to the mid-1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes.

Bristol said the Water Commission estimates 4,000 houses in Medford were built before 1950, when lead pipes and other lead fixtures were used in water lines.

If homeowners are concerned about the water coming out of their taps, the Water Commission suggests they conduct their own tests, Bristol said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Sara Bristol of the Medford Water Commission displays an example of a lead 'pigtail' connection. Still from Mail Tribune video by Damian Mann