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Lead levels in Pittsburgh’s tap water fall to a 20-year low

Water shoots up in an arc from a water fountain faucet.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
The Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority has replaced more than 11,000 lead water lines in recent years.

Pittsburgh’s drinking water contained the lowest levels of lead in two decades and ran free of any violations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Water Act standards, according to Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority’s annual water quality report released this week.

“The water is incredibly safe and incredibly reliable to drink,” said Kevin Wood, senior manager of water quality at PWSA.

Every water authority is required by the EPA to share the source of the supply and any risks associated with the drinking water, and to report any violations of Safe Water Act standards. For example, the federal standard for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion. A part per billion is like a drop of water in an Olympic-sized pool, according to PWSA.

Back in 2016, lead levels in the city of Pittsburgh spiked at 22 parts per billion, prompting a water crisis. PWSA’s latest report shows a lead level last year of less than four parts per billion.

There is no safe level of lead in the body. Exposure to even low levels of lead in children can damage the central nervous system, stunt growth and impair hearing. And it can cause birth complications for pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While there’s still work to do to eliminate lead from Pittsburgh’s drinking water, this drop marks “significant progress” for PWSA, according to Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that has funded independent evaluations of Allegheny County’s water systems.

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In 2019, PWSA started using a chemical called orthophosphate that forms a coating on the inside of water lines — many of which are still made of lead — to prevent the toxic element from leaching into the drinking water. They’ve also replaced more than 11,000 lead water lines in the public system and more than 7,000 private lead lines that run from the street into homes. This summer, they’re putting $60 million from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority to replace lead lines across Pittsburgh.

“This is a huge decrease in lead levels,” said Megan Lange, engagement programs manager at Pittsburgh Water Collaboratory — a research organization focused on water sustainability at the University of Pittsburgh. “And I anticipate that as they continue removing the lead service lines, it's just going to go down lower and lower.”

Lead isn’t the only danger lurking in the water. This year, the EPA started regulating PFAS, also known as forever chemicals in drinking water and set the limit at 4.0 parts per trillion. Exposure to these chemicals at certain levels can cause reproductive and developmental issues like low birth weight and bone variations; and it increases risk for certain cancers, according to the EPA.

PWSA said they’ve been “proactively monitoring PFAS in the drinking water since 2018 and “have yet to hit above the detection limit,” according to Wood.

Beyond water treatment, the agency is in the middle of a $500 million upgrade to their century-old water pumping and distribution system. Over the next five to seven years, they’re putting in new lines and covers in their reservoirs, building new pump stations — including one in Highland Park — and rehabbing large distribution pipes that bring water from the pump stations through the web of pipes under the city.

But Naccarati-Chapkis said the report should give people “assurance” to drink water from the tap instead of reaching for bottled water, which has more lax regulations. Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and is not required to disclose water sources and any contaminant violations.

“[PWSA has] come a long way since the crisis happened in 2016,” Lange said. “And I think that we're starting to see how much more transparent they are as a water utility. And, it's been beneficial for ratepayers.”

Those who live in PWSA’s service area should check their map to see if they have lead water lines. PWSA offers free lead testing kits and a water filter pitcher to remove lead if the test comes back positive.