Pittsburgh’s Hidden Lead Piping

Pittsburgh’s Hidden Lead Piping

A group of students embarked last semester on finding out if Pittsburgh was comparable to Flint, Michigan; here’s what they found.

Written by Trevor Kirby

Video by Rebecca Lessner & Trevor Kirby

As the city water system became so mired in controversy over a Flint-type lead crisis in the water lines, the Environmental Journalism Group of Point Park University, had some concerns over water quality at local universities and colleges.

One student at Point Park University (PPU), Briana Walton, a third-year Photojournalism Major, was a strong believer that the city water didn’t pass the eye test.

“I have a well at my home in North Hills, and when I first came to this school I tasted the water and could tell a difference, in not only taste but also color,” she said.

So, an Environmental Journalism group at PPU, made up of graduate-student Rebecca Lessner and third year photojournalist student Trevor Kirby, decided to test drinking fountains of four different city schools, which produced some surprising results.

In the tests done at Point Park, University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and the Community College of Allegheny County, the group found that water was potable and almost devoid of lead.

Specifically, they found these results,

  • The drinking fountain water had only one parts per billion (ppb), which compares to the worst results in Flint with the tests showing over 25 parts per billion. This was almost a minuscule problem.
  • EPA’s action level is 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead for PWSs (public water system’s)
  • The students water was safe to drink and use.

While those findings brought clarity to the fountain contents, they couldn’t get past the notion that water produced by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority had other issues.

“Yeah, our water is OK but why, when I turn my faucet on in the dorm, does it still come out brown,” asked Megan Bixler a third-year photojournalism major at Point Park.

The proof is in the piping.

What the group found after touring the PWSA plant, was that the clean water that emerges from the North Side water plant travels through miles of piping – many of the pipes made of old lead – causing infusion of lead and other chemicals into the water before it reaches Pittsburgh homes.

The school group, like city engineers, soon found there is no database telling them which of the many hundreds of miles of pipe were lead. This is what contributed to a controversy-filled Spring of 2017, with city residents outraged that very little was being done to correct issues that seemed like they were rivaling Flint, Mich.

But is Pittsburgh comparable to Flint, Michigan?

If you remember, earlier this year officials from Flint Michigan looked to find a cheaper source of water for their city, they turned to the Flint river for answers. Little did they know they would find E-Coli and coliform bacteria in the water.

Soon after, children were tested for lead poisoning and a state of emergency being declared in Flint last December after finding lead levels as high as 13,000 PPB, which the EPA was in disarray about and considered the water to be toxic waste.

In Pittsburgh, it’s our hidden lead pipelines.

According to Anthony Gaglierd, retired Environmental Health Administrator with the Allegheny County Health Department, in the 1900s many cities including Pittsburgh used lead piping for water lines.

The primary reason was that, from an engineering perspective, it was an ideal material. It was pliable, durable and you could work it around existing infrastructure.  Engineers thought of it almost as the “Cadillac of pipes.”

Once it was in the ground, a lead pipe would last two to three times longer than iron piping. In fact, that is why the lead pipes that were put in the ground in the 1900s for the most part, are still in use today.

Occasionally, people would raise health concerns about the lead. But at the time, there wasn’t a deep appreciation for how serious lead could be, so those concerns were minimized.

This lead to the late 19th century and early 1900s, women would use lead as an abortifacient. There were companies that actually mass marketed lead pills, and you would take the pills to induce abortion.

The complexity of water-related lead exposure was another issue. If you have a neutral or slightly scale producing water, it’s perfectly safe to run that water through a lead pipe. The slightly scale producing water will lay down a carbonate film on the lead lines preventing the release of lead into the water.  When the water gets aggressive it tends to dissolve lead from the lines and place it in the water. Which then brings it into our homes and into our bodies.

In 1900, chemists did not fully understand the nature of that relationship.  It wasn’t until the early 20th century when a Saturation Index was developed by Dr. Wilfred Langelier, which now bears his name, the Langelier Saturation Index. It and other like catalogs are basically a way to determine if water is corrosive (negative LSI) or scale-forming (positive LSI). Water can only hold so much calcium carbonate in solution. Once the water is saturated any excess will precipitate out forming a protective film on lead water lines.

From the commencement of filtration in 1907, until the 1950s, there was no further chemical treatment performed on the water. Only the addition of chlorine for disinfection and, during periods of acid river water, and soda ash to reduce the acidity of the water prior to filtration.

How will Pittsburgh fix the problem?

In March, Mayor Bill Peduto announced the beginning of a remediation/replacement program for the problems in partnering with Peoples Gas and the PWSA to invest $1 million to provide water filters to every PWSA customer with high lead levels in their homes. The city has also offered to install these filters in schools and community centers as well as senior centers.

The filters that are expected to be installed in homes will be “point of use” filters, meaning that they will be installed in all taps and faucets throughout the home. The ones to be installed in schools and public facilities are expected to be “point of entry” filters, meaning they are to be attached to the inflow water pipes and will filter all water coming into the buildings.

“The households that have tested their water and have high levels of lead, we absolutely want to put a filter in their hands, but as I was sitting earlier this year with some activists and constituents from my district and talking about this issue, I realized that this is going to take a very long time to gather all of this information,” stated Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Deb Gross. “In years past the EPA was just concerned with averages, but now we have to realize that there could be two houses right next to each other with entirely different results and the problem is we have no idea who is who.”

Gross has stated “there is no safe level for lead in water, especially for children.”

When it comes to the EPA, ten or fifteen parts per billion are seen as OK. What does that mean for you? One part per billion (ppb) denotes one part per 1billion parts, this is equivalent to one drop of water diluted into 250 chemical drums or about three seconds out of a century.

While the Point Park group did not find any large amounts of lead in the tested drinking fountains, KDKA-TV went to the R.J. Lee Group in Monroeville to have them test a random sampling of tap water from some older homes in and around Pittsburgh and found house in Greenfield having 2.2 parts of lead per billion. One home in Lawrenceville had 4.6 parts per billion, another in Wilkinsburg had 6.7 and another in Oakland came up with a reading of 10.5 parts per billion.

Although high, all of these are below the CDC and EPA limit of 15 ppb. Knowing which residents have lead service lines will allow a focused effort on determining lead levels in drinking water at these residences, and the need for a filter will help in prioritizing a replacement schedule before gets worse.

ANYONE WISHING TO GET A FREE LEAD TESTING KIT CAN GO TO, http://pgh2o.com/lead-testing-kits, or e-mail servicelines@pgh2o.com or call 412-255-2423 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday – Friday.

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