For Byrdsong, a lifelong community activist, the questions go beyond who will help pay to replace the service lines. He is concerned about the long-term effects on children who have been poisoned by lead, and he wants to see more discussion on public education and outreach.
“Who is responsible when your child has delay issues and all types of problems going to school? Who will be liable? It does not stop by us identifying the problem.”
Pickering says PWSA has improved their voluntary testing procedure since it began in the summer and encourages customers who may have not heard back from PWSA on a previous test kit to request another sample: “The free test will give a better idea where lead is and may inform our replacement efforts in the future.”
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner knows firsthand the frustration and uncertainty that goes along with lead testing. Wagner submitted a free lead test for her North Point Breeze home in August. In October, she inquired about its status and was told the sample had been lost. PWSA then sent her two sample bottles, which she filled one after the other from her sink and then submitted for testing.
One bottle came back at 6 ppb; the other, 27.
Wagner has two children, ages 7 and 4, and she has since gotten prescriptions to have them tested for lead. “We bought my house when my younger one was 10 months old, so that’s my particular concern,” she says.
Last month Wagner released the results of an audit of the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that concluded the ACHD must do more to address local concerns about elevated lead levels in public water.
“I think it is absolutely essential that we have independent testing done,” says Wagner. “Even within the EPA regulations, there can be major, major variations.”
Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the ACHD, says it is not possible for her office to independently conduct tests of PWSA compliance testing sites. “Under operation of law we are not allowed to conduct validation testing and must allow the system to complete its action steps as required by the lead and copper rule.”
Dr. Marc Edwards, Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech University, is a former MacArthur Fellow whose research helped to uncover the true extent of lead in Flint, MI’s water. He agrees that there are fundamental flaws with the EPA testing procedures that PWSA and ACHD must employ.
Edwards says that the nature of how lead flakes from a pipe into drinking water means that “it’s like Russian Roulette.”
“You’re trying to detect semi-random events where chunks of lead fall off the pipe and into water. In a typical case you can collect 10 samples in a house. Eight look like it’s “zero;” two will have a chunk of lead in it that’s over the [15 ppb] action level.”
“This is what makes sampling so difficult,” he continues. “We used to tell people that if they sample one time and their lead is low, they’re safe. Everyone knows that’s false.”
Emily Drill and Steve Hayashi have submitted several water samples from their Squirrel Hill home to both PWSA and third-party testing laboratories. An August sample came back at 37.3 ppb; one in November, 23.4; and one in December at 28.4.
Steve says that for the December test he let the tap run for about 90 seconds, or 30 seconds longer than PWSA currently recommends for flushing, before taking a water sample. He says that his family is obviously concerned about lead in water—he and Emily are parents to 3-year-old twins, whose blood lead levels were tested and came back low—but they don’t have the extra money to spend on replacing their service line.
In the meantime, they rely on filtering their water by using a NSF-certified filter on their sink. Steve buys the filters in a two-pack from Home Depot for $24.87. The box says to replace the filters every 100 gallons, but the NSF website warns that “extra precaution should be taken when tap water contains high levels of contaminants.”
PWSA is still conducting tests to determine which combination of corrosion control chemicals is best suited for Pittsburgh water and will inhibit lead from leaching into water during the decade-plus it will take them to replace all the service lines. In the meantime, the one thing that everyone, from the PWSA, to the County Controller, to the Health Department, to the community activists can agree upon is that learning about the problem is the first step to staying safe.
Stay tuned for a follow-up piece from NEXTpittsburgh that addresses actions individuals can take to address high lead levels in their homes and communities.