What to Know About Lead in Your Drinking Water

The town of Flint, Michigan was thrust into the spotlight in 2014 when it was revealed that poor management by the city caused lead to leach into the public’s water. The nation rallied behind the townspeople, demanding clean water and more accountability. However, the same problem was happening in Pittsburgh at the same time, to much less fanfare because of a lack of public knowledge.

Pittsburgh has some of the worst drinking water in the country, comparable to the water in Flint, Michigan, in some parts around the city. The biggest problem lies within the lead pipes and soldering used in some aging individual homes. Pittsburgh’s challenge is the inability to reverse the problem, as there is no definite account of where the private lead pipes are located and the cost to replace the problem pipes is upwards in the billions.


An estimate of the lead exposure in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas. Photo from Vox.com.

An estimate of the lead exposure in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas. Photo from Vox.com.

Pittsburgh’s lead problems were ignited in 2012 when Veolia came to Pittsburgh and promised to fix the PWSA. Veolia is a utilities management company that works with utilities for “customized, cost-effective solutions that reflect best practices, environmental protection and a better quality of life.” However, Veolia’s management included eliminating an agent that treated Pittsburgh’s water for lead. This came with severe consequences because of Pittsburgh’s old infrastructure that included the use of lead pipes and soldering. The change resulted in spikes of lead levels in public drinking water because citizens were no longer protected from the corroding pipes. The PWSA ended up suing the company due to the mismanagement that occurred for years under Veolia, but the damage had already been done.

To fix the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority’s old pipes and water treatment equipment would cost an estimated $4 to $5 billion. This figure doesn’t even take into account the PWSA's $750 million standing debt.

Lead contaminated water is especially dangerous for children because even trivial amounts of lead can be harmful to small children. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “In young children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.” Additionally, high enough doses of lead in pregnant women can  cause miscarriages.

The effects of lead consumption in adults can be just as detrimental in large enough amounts. Long-term exposure is known to cause a decrease in nervous system functions as well as possible weakness in joints, increases in blood pressure, anemia, brain and/or kidney damage, and possibly even cancer. The EPA has determined that lead is most likely a human carcinogen.

Tests in the summer of 2016 concluded that Pittsburgh lead levels exceeded federal standards for the first time on record. 17% of homes were found to have lead levels above the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion. With lead levels creeping up and no option to replace the pipes, we must think how to temporarily mitigate the problem in order to protect the declining health of the 300,000+ people that call Pittsburgh their home. RAIN recognizes lead as a enormous problem. Our mission to better ensure the protection of public health and quality drinking water is directly targeted by the dangerous lead levels throughout the city. We hope that by educating the public we can begin to mitigate this issue and begin the long road to fixing the problem at its source.

The PWSA has been distributing lead testing kits to determine if your house’s pipes carry traces of lead in your water. If you want to reduce the effects of lead in your water, PWSA advises citizens to use cold water and not boil water, as this can increase lead levels. Another mitigation effort is to run water for a minute before use or using a heavy metal water filter to screen out lead in your drinking water. To fix the problem, the most efficient way is to replace your house’s pipes and soldering to safer materials.


Marissa Rollman