Water quality has long been an issue in Pittsburgh between its aged infrastructure and history of heavy industrial pollution.

Now the Pittsburgh-based advocacy and education nonprofit, Women for a Healthy Environment (WHE), has released its comprehensive, two-year analysis, Something’s in the Water, of 36 community water systems, assembled via public information and Right to Know requests.

The results show plenty of room for improvement, and the report makes extensive recommendations.

Most water systems in Allegheny County are publicly owned, they found, and many are understaffed and under-resourced. In 2019, more than half reported water quality violations. Eighty percent of water systems had detectable lead levels in their drinking water in 2019.

“Some themes emerged that are wake-up calls to our community: that private water suppliers are more expensive and less transparent than their public counterparts, that collaboration across water systems will promote the sharing of resources, technical expertise and best practices across the region, and that all water systems must commit to ceasing all partial lead service line replacements,” said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of WHE.

That last recommendation sounds odd, but WHE makes it clear that partial lead service line replacements, which means only replacing part of a service line on the public or private side, can actually “cause a spike in lead levels higher than any before any replacement occurred,” says the report.

Lead line replacement. Photo courtesy of WHE.

While the current “action level” for lead in drinking water (set by the EPA) is 15 ppb (parts per billion) — there is no safe level of lead exposure, notes the report.

“So currently, with the data that we have, only about  3% of our water systems are above that 15 parts per billion,” said Maureen Hartwell, WHE’s Policy Fellow. “So they’re within the danger zone if you will. But if the requirements would go down to 10 (ppb) being the trigger … that adds another 15% of local water systems. So there are really a lot of water systems kind of in that gray area right now.”

There are two ways to reduce lead in drinking water — the full replacement of lead service lines and corrosion control.

There are also actions consumers can take.

WHE recommends requesting a water quality test on your drinking water and purchasing a National Sanitation Foundation-certified water pitcher or faucet mount to filter lead from your water. Also, always use cold tap water when preparing food, beverages and infant formula — cold water is used more often and the lines are usually more frequently flushed.

WHE also recommends attending your water system’s next board meeting (likely easier now, thanks to Zoom) and voicing your concerns.

The report also notes that bottled water isn’t anything special when it comes to lead levels.

“There’s actually not a super-rigorous standard for bottled water,” said WHE Healthy Homes Coordinator Hanna Beightley. “So it’s really not meeting any real production standard other than what some filtered water has to meet. So it’s not usually always considered safer. Sometimes it’s practically exactly what is also in tap water.”

Something’s in the Water also includes details on the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority’s (PENNVEST) new Lead Line Replacement project, which is expected to invest $90 million in this work in 2021.

WHE started this report two years ago, when simple questions about water quality were hard to answer by using the websites of community water systems. The 25-page report can be downloaded here.