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Pittsburgh's history of lead in our water, paint, and soil continues to have enormous repercussions for the area's public health. Hidden Poison is a series on lead problems and solutions, reported by public media partners 90.5 WESA News, Allegheny Front, PublicSource, and Keystone Crossroads. Read more at our website: hiddenpoison.org.

How Safe Is Pittsburgh's Drinking Water?

Paul Sancya
AP Images
A Flint, MI resident receives water filters and a test kit from a Michigan National Guard Specialist.

After thousands of children were exposed to lead due to poor water quality in Flint, Michigan, many across the nation are wondering if their own water is safe. Could it happen in Pittsburgh? Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer sat down with James Good, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, to see what the agency is doing to remain compliant.  

Currently, Pittsburgh’s lead levels are up from previous readings. The tests performed in 2013 revealed tap water as having 14.7 parts per billion of lead, only .3 points below the level which mandates federal intervention. What many notice, however, is that in 1999, the reading averaged at 2 parts per billion.

Good dispelled the concerns, saying the higher readings do not mean lead is poisoning the Allegheny River, which is where Pittsburgh draws its water.

“It is important to understand that the lead is not actually in the water itself,” he said.

So what is to blame for the increased lead levels? According to Good, it’s old houses. The PWSA tests 50 homes per year for lead levels, and those houses change from year to year. Older houses are more likely to contain lead in their pipes and, as such, will read higher than newer homes.

The lead, Good explains, does not come from the water source, but from the pipes leading to the homes. Water is corrosive, and as it wears away at the pipes, it can leech lead out of them. The PWSA adds chemicals to the water which lowers its corrosiveness, as well as adding a film to the inside of the pipes to better protect them.

Such variances in lead readings could be avoided if the PWSA could test the same houses each year, but Good says that does not always happen.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “This is private property, these are homeowners and we have to rely on them essentially volunteering to make themselves available for testing and that could change if a homeowner moves out to someplace else and somebody new buys the home.”

For any citizens concerned about lead in their drinking water, Good said that running the tap water first thing in the morning until it changes temperature ensures that the water being consumed did not sit in the pipes overnight. Furthermore, the PWSA can be contacted to test anyone’s water by calling 412-782-7554.

 More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.