Photo by Kevin Pelletier / Flickr

What is happening?

Elevated levels of lead have been detected in Pittsburgh drinking water. This concerns the approximately 80,000 homes served by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA). Lead has not been detected leaving PWSA’s water treatment facility in Aspinwall, which indicates that lead is coming from service linesthe part of the water line that connects the home to the water main under the street. It is estimated that 20-25% of city homes have lead service lines, but that number could vary.

Why now?

Lead levels in Pittsburgh water have been increasing since 2001. The current problem is believed to have been exacerbated by an illegal switch in corrosion control chemicals by Veolia North America, a French multi-national corporation that managed daily operations at PWSA from July 2012 through the end of 2015. For 21 months beginning in April 2014, PWSA water was treated by caustic soda instead of soda ash, the chemical approved by PA’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to maintain a protective barrier inside lead service lines.

It is believed that this switch may have eroded this protective coating, causing lead to more easily leach into drinking water. The city is currently suing Veolia for the illegal switch, inaccurate billing and other issues. (Veolia denies the accusations [.pdf].) PWSA is currently working to determine which corrosion control chemicals are best suited for Pittsburgh water at which point it will request permission from the Pennsylvania DEP to being its implementation.

What are the risks?

According to the World Health Organization:

Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system. Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight, as well as minor malformations.

The Allegheny County Health Department offers Recommendations for Blood Lead Screening on their website. ACHD has also recommended that all children in Allegheny County be tested for lead beginning in 2018.

What can be done?

PWSA instructs residents that boiling water does not eliminate lead and recommends that only cold water be used for cooking and preparing formula. Other steps to take are as follows:

-Determine if you have a lead service line or lead pipes within your house.

  • NPR has put together a step-by-step guide that explains what to look for. Older homes that pre-date 1950 are more likely to have lead pipes. (Lead solder was not banned until 1986.) If parts of the service line are not visible inside the house a curb box inspection may be required. Contact PWSA for more information in arranging one.

-Have your water tested.

  • PWSA offers free lead test kits. Off-the-shelf lead test kits are available for purchase at many retail hardware stores. Elevated lead levels are a good indicator of the presence of a lead service line.
  • It should be noted that many experts as well as the EPA itself question the effectiveness of the “first draw” sampling technique employed by PWSA and others to measure lead in homes. An EPA white paper from October 2016 exploring changes to the federal Lead and Copper Rule stated “current water sampling protocols were designed to assess the adequacy of [corrosion-control treatment], not the level of human exposure to lead.”
  • Additionally, receiving a test result that non-detect lead levels does not necessarily mean a home is free from lead exposure. Lead-in-water expert and VA Tech professor Dr. Marc Edwards was quoted in NEXTpittsburgh last week as saying “You’re trying to detect semi-random events where chunks of lead fall off the pipe and into water[. . .]This is what makes sampling so difficult. We used to tell people that if they sample one time and their lead is low, they’re safe. Everyone knows that’s false.”

-Flush your pipes.

  • The longer water rests inside a lead pipe the more likely it is that that water will have high lead levels, which is why experts recommend homeowners flush their pipes first thing in the morning or after several hours of inactivity. PWSA has recently updated their guidelines to recommend flushing pipes for at least one minute. The EPA recommends flushing for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. The Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) says to flush for 2 to 3 minutes. The American Water Works Association [.pdf] recommends flushing for 3 to 5 minutes to ensure fresh water is coming from the water main. Showering or using a washing machine may also be an acceptable alternative to running taps after prolonged inactivity.

-Buy a NSF-certified water filter.

  • Not all filters are graded to remove lead. Look for a filter that says “NSF/ANSI Standard 53” on the package for drinking water treatment systems or “NSF/ANSI Standard 58” for reverse osmosis drinking water treatment systems.

-Replace your service line.

  • PWSA is mandated to replace 7% of the city’s lead services lines annually until all have been replaced. That includes only the portion of the service line from the water main to the property line; the portion from the property line into the home is the homeowner’s responsibility. If you suspect you have a lead service line and have the financial means to do so it is best to coordinate with the PWSA to replace both parts of the service line at the same time: numerous studies have shown that replacing only one half of a lead service line can cause a temporary increase in lead in water.

-Recognize that lead in water is not the largest source of lead exposure.

Further reading:

Environmental Protection Agency: “Protect Your Family from Exposures to Lead.”

Allegheny County Health Department: “Tips to Prevent Lead Poisoning & Exposure”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Lead Home”

Popular Science: “Lead In Water: What Are The Health Effects And Dangers?

USA Today: “Investigation: Lead in Your Water”

Washington Post: “The EPA’s lead-in-water rule has been faulted for decades. Will Flint hasten a change?”

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.