Seattle Public Utilities suggests customers flush pipes before drinking just in case. But instead of wasting water down the drain, you can flush the toilet, take a shower, or water the plants to get the water moving in pipes.
Seattle Public Utilities this weekend is testing the water from a handful of homes it suspects might have so-called gooseneck fittings between the water main and the house — and the results expected next week could determine if the utility has a lead problem.
Concern began when Tacoma water-utility managers detected lead in drinking water to four homes there.
SPU then recommended its customers let the water run for two minutes before drinking it or cooking with it — if it hasn’t been turned on in six hours or more — while SPU tries to determine if there is lead in any tap water here.
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Specifically, it is testing water in Seattle homes that may have their supply threaded through a lead connection between the water main and the service line to their house.
Those typically are homes built before 1930, with galvanized service line 1 inch or smaller. There about 8,000 such lines in the city, and SPU knows from anecdotal reports by crews working on lines that about one in four are connected to the main with a lead gooseneck fitting — so called because of its curved shape.
SPU will soon produce a map of where those 2,000 lines are all over the city. On Friday it tested the water in three homes on those lines and it will test a few more Saturday to ensure the water is lead free. Results should be available early next week.
In the meantime, two minutes with the tap on is a lot of water wasted down the drain, assuming 5 gallons in two minutes times the utility’s 164,000 single-family and duplex accounts. Nearly 1 million gallons.
Flushing the toilet, taking a shower or watering the plants also will get the water moving in pipes.
The Seattle testing locations were chosen because the homes fit all the likely criteria of age of construction and service-line configuration. A secondary criterion is geographic distribution; SPU is trying to get samples from evenly distributed geography all over the city.
No digging is involved: SPU is sampling from the kitchen tap.
At issue is not only the lead fittings between the main and service line but the galvanized lining in some of the service lines, which may have anywhere from 0 to 2 percent lead in the coating, said Wylie Harper, SPU’s drinking-water quality director.
Over time the lining could corrode, releasing lead. SPU, like other utilities, continually treats its drinking water with lime to modify the pH and keep corrosion in check.
If SPU discovers that there is lead leaching into drinking water from its service lines, it intends to replace them.
Seattle’s water supply has long been tested for lead, as is every water utility’s, to meet federal regulations. In its most recent annual report to customers, SPU documented a finding of 0 for lead levels in the water supply. Seattle’s water is from the Cascade Mountains and is among the purest in the country.
Seattle’s tap water regularly tests so clean that SPU qualifies for reduced federally required monitoring for lead and copper of 50 homes every three years. The most recent round of samples in 2014 showed no results with lead or copper above regulatory limits.
There is no reason to stop drinking tap water. “I live in Seattle and I drink the water and my kids drink the water, so I take a personal interest in it, and I am continuing to drink the water,” Harper said.
Seattle’s water-distribution system consists of large water mains primarily of cast iron under streets, which connect to service lines to homes and businesses. These service lines have been made of different materials over the years, noted Alex Chen, director of SPU’s water planning division: from plastic to copper to galvanized iron in about 5 percent of the system. By now the city has replaced about 20,000 of those service lines because of corrosion concern.
Today most of the 195,000 service lines in the system are more modern copper piping.
Mostly other sources
For all the concern about lead in drinking water, that is not where lead poisoning typically comes from in Washington.
“The principal cause is rarely, if ever, water; I frankly don’t ever remember seeing that,” said Lauren Jenks, director of Environmental Public Health Sciences with the state Department of Health.
Instead, exposure is from lead in dust, soil and paint, Jenks said. And there was no evidence that people in Tacoma were exposed to lead from the plumbing tested there. Instead, what was detected was a possible source of exposure from lead plumbing that has since been removed by Tacoma Public Utilities.
Tacoma also is continuing its testing, this time with samples that it expects will be closer to what a homeowner would have normally received from the tap.
Customers who want to confirm for themselves that there is no lead in their home drinking water can have their water tested for about $25 to $50. To find a testing lab, go online at the state Department of Ecology.
Sergio Sanchez, vice president of IEH Laboratories, an accredited testing service in Seattle, said that with the news from Tacoma, more people are calling for tests, “But it’s not a flood, maybe one or two people a day.” A test of tap water there costs $25 and takes two days to get results.