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Is there lead in Seattle’s drinking water?

When Seattle Public Utilities advised residents last week to run their taps for two minutes before drinking the water, it was, at first, a little confusing. The department had not seen any evidence of lead in Seattle’s water. Instead, the citywide recommendation was a reaction to Tacoma finding four homes with lead levels above what the federal government considers safe; Seattle uses the same pipe fittings that seem to be leaching lead in Tacoma.

We presume that the decision also had something to do with the fact that officials in Michigan currently face potential prison time for their failure to alert Flint residents of lead in their water. You can bet every public utility in the country is on high alert. As Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted at a meeting Monday morning, the decision to issue an advisory required SPU to walk a thin line between being appropriately precautionary and inducing hysteria. SPU erred on the side of caution and, so far, no looting in the streets.

So should we be worried?

The short answer is, probably not. Here’s the longer answer:

At issue are serpentine “gooseneck” fittings attached to water mains beneath the cities’ streets. As these fittings corrode, they can leach lead into the water. Both Seattle and Tacoma have these fittings, so when Tacoma saw problems, Seattle jumped.

The difference between Seattle and Tacoma — and especially Flint — is what happens further upstream. In Flint, the pipes had long contained lead. The problems came when city officials switched the water supply to the more corrosive, less treated water of the Flint River. As the pipes broke down, the lead was released into the water.

Seattle hasn’t made any drastic, ill-thought-out switches to new water sources, and according to SPU’s Wiley Harper, the city’s treatment plant and relatively clean water source make the water gentler than Tacoma’s. So while both Tacoma and Seattle use gooseneck fittings, Seattle’s water has not released the dangerous bits.

Still, SPU estimates about 2,000 homes in Seattle receive drinking water that runs through one of these goosenecks, and you’re forgiven for worrying that yours might be one of them. Lead poisoning does really, really terrible things to people.

How do you know if your water runs through one of those goosenecks? Well, you don’t. Not exactly. The indicator of a gooseneck is that they are always attached to galvanized steel or iron pipes. That said, not every galvanized pipe has a gooseneck. SPU guesses that about 8,000 homes run their water through galvanized steel. By a hand count, one in four of those uses a gooseneck, hence 2,000 homes at risk of exposure.

You can now check to see if you drink galvanized water, thanks to this neat map from SPU:

Just zoom in on your address and click on the red line going into your home. If your builder was fancy, you’ve got copper. If your builder was economical, you’ve got plastic. If your builder was hearty, you may have ductile iron (cast iron). If you’re maybe a little unlucky, you’ve got galvanized iron or steel. (If you’re having trouble finding your place, the map on the SPU site has a search function.)

Got galvanized pipes? The good news is that SPU just tested some of those homes and they came out OK, so don’t freak out. But maybe you should take extra special care to run your faucet.

Turns out, we’re always supposed to run our taps for two minutes before consumption, lead scare or no. That, says Seattle Public Utilities Director Ray Hoffman, is the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard protocol for consumers after water has been sitting in pipes for six hours or more. According to Harper of SPU, even a simple flush of the toilet should do.

Still worried? Maybe give SPU a call. They’ll soothe you with their talk of gentle water.

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