Dear Portland: how about we promote best public health practices for drinking water

Carole Smith, Superintendent
Carole Smith, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, has been criticized severely by many parents for failures of leadership surrounding the lack of notification about unsafe lead levels at two public schools, for weeks.

Ed. Note, July 16, 2016: See update below regarding the city deciding not to adjust the water’s pH to address corrosion/lead and water issues.

On June 5, 2016, I wrote a letter to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish, head of the Portland Water Bureau, asking for some leadership. Right now, it appears Portland’s management of its critically important drinking water system is now being called into question, and rightly so. If you have not heard, the city’s schools are in a tailspin because kids and families were not properly advised of unsafe levels of lead in drinking water at two schools, for weeks. Soon after, all drinking water was shut off at all schools until fixes are made, and parents have called for the immediate resignation of Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith. This has since grown into a larger crisis impacting school systems dependent on the city’s water.

The actions at the schools and in our water system impact the entire community. While I am not alarmist by lead level readings in parts per billion, and I deeply worried that leadership is lacking and ideas that undermine public health are now being embraced in the decision-making culture of our schools and our local government. This matters, because nothing is more critical to public health than clean drinking water. And when trust is eroded, the public will not support public health with public money, which is how we ensure public health for all.

COPY OF LETTER SENT:

Dear Mayor Hales and Commissioner Fish: I work on many issues for my job, including educating the public about water. I love informing people how amazing our country’s drinking water systems are in promoting public health. So I feel passionately about the topic and appreciate all the work all of our water purveyors do daily, without much thanks they deserve, all the time. And my thanks are extended to the staff at the Portland Water Bureau. They keep us healthy, 365 days a year.

For the record, I have a background in public health and spent two years promoting community water fluoridation in the Tacoma/Pierce County area. I am proud of the many proven public health measures with our water systems adopted nationally since the early 1900s have saved lives, improved human health, and lead to better overall public health. This includes fluoridation and chlorination.

The Crude death rate for infectious diseases - United States, 1900-1996. Chlorination proved one of the greatest life savers to promote public health.
The Crude death rate for infectious diseases – United States, 1900-1996. Chlorination proved one of the greatest life savers to promote public health.

I am writing both of you now because I am becoming alarmed as a resident of the city, who is waiting for the outcome of a lead/water test at his home, of a “philosophy” expressed by some of our most important leaders regarding how we should provide clean, healthy drinking water–the greatest public health intervention we have for our community.

It appears as a city may have been taken badly off the rails by perhaps improper cost-based decisions and philosophically-based decisions over a long period of time.

OPB reported on June 3 that the U.S. EPA has become alarmed by the city’s decisions: “The manager, Marie Jennings, was concerned that the Portland Water Bureau isn’t doing enough to minimize the amount of lead at taps in Portland. She wrote that the EPA’s regional administrator, Dennis McLerran, had ‘heightened concerns about drinking water quality, including the [Portland Water Bureau’s] implementation under the Lead and Copper Rule.'”

We also, as a city, do not appear to be promoting best practices because of the vocal “natural-health,” vaccination-denying minority who don’t understand public health and whose sometimes radical views now threaten our kids, and everyone else in many areas. The consequences were very harmful with the public vote on water fluoridation. Continuing stories on how the city’s and its schools’ lead and water protocols are handled have me growing more concerned the more I learn about the many actions taken by the city dating back to the 1990s.

So, for the record, I WANT treated water. I think we can all agree there is NO SUCH THING as pure water. All water has minerals and chemicals that are adjusted to optimize public heath. Give me my chlorine/chloramines, please. I love that taste. It means I’m not going to get a water-borne illness that might kill me.

Mayor Hales, I would hope you can use your bully pulpit in the remaining few months to promote a dialogue on the benefits of healthy drinking water, including chlorination systems, one of the greatest life-savers ever adopted in this country. And please communicate using facts not fairy dust that Portland has “pure” water or that WE Portlanders “expect purity” in our drinking water. This is a very dangerous message with real consequences as we are now seeing.

We as Portlanders don’t want minimally treated water. We want optimally treated water. I want my chemicals in the water to ensure we stay healthy based on proven science. Having this message below used by our public health champions (and they are our champions) is not a best practice to promote public health. Let’s stop the nonsense about keeping our water pure. Did we learn anything from Flint?

I'll have my water with the appropriate treatment to optimize health--and yes that includes chemicals, thank you.
I’ll have my water with the appropriate treatment to optimize health–and yes that includes chemicals, thank you.

FROM THE OPB STORY:  http://www.opb.org/news/article/portlands-water-hasnt-gotten-the-lead-out/

The public’s strong preference for keeping Portland’s water source pure and natural – in open air reservoirs and free of chemical treatment  – hindered efforts that would have reduced the amount of lead in drinking water.

Portland remains the largest city in the country that does not add fluoride to its water. The city finally decided to phase out its open-air reservoirs after more than a decade of debate.

“Portland residents have said pretty clearly that they want a minimal amount of treatment in their water, so that’s something that needs to be taken into account” [Scott] Bradway said.

 Ed. Note: Scott Bradway is a lead hazard reduction specialist at the Portland Water Bureau.

UPDATE JULY 16, 2016:

The Oregonian published a story that addresses the concerns I raised with Mayor Hale’s and Commissioner Fish. Neither office replied to two emails I sent to their office. In the story by Oregonian reporter Brad Schmidt, it appears Portland is continuing to take a position not to address issue of the corrosive qualities of the water. This is likely in part because of a misguided view seen in the statement from Bradway that residents want minimal treatment of water. That is a false statement–we want our water treated optimally to maximize public health for everyone.

This view undermines the ability of government to promote public health and dangerously cedes public health decision making to the anti-fluoride and anti-vaccer voices that have made Portland and Oregon public health poster children for how not to promote health for all. If these views are guiding our policy-makers, this remains very disturbing and should be a great concern to anyone who practices public health in Oregon and Portland. Did anyone in Portland learn anything from the example of Flint, Michigan?

The story noted: “But Fish cautioned Portland may not simply add more chemicals to the water to reduce corrosion. Officials could explore options for ‘more robust outreach and education,’ more water testing or potentially some sort of program that helps homeowners replace lead-tainted plumbing.

“‘We think we can do better’ — Portland Commissioner Nick Fish on lead levels in drinking water.

“‘Until we’ve completed our assessment, we don’t know what’s the best option,’ Fish said.

“In August, city officials will meet with state and federal regulators to review preliminary results from a study looking at pipe corrosion within Portland’s water system. The meeting has yet to be scheduled.

Although city officials haven’t committed to making any changes to their treatment process, they have agreed to present a ‘detailed proposed schedule for selection, design, construction, and implementation’ of treatment techniques to lower lead levels, state records show.”

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