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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:

Customers Angry About Water Quality Testing Backlog As PWSA Moves To Streamline Process

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority this week announced changes to its protocol for testing customer water samples for lead that could cut wait time for customers in half.

Acting Chief Water Quality Officer Gina Cyprych said testing currently takes about five weeks: eight to ten business days for delivery and pickup of the testing kit and three weeks for the lab to analyze the samples. The new system should take closer to two-and-a-half weeks, but Cyprich said both time frames are “optimistic.”

Many PWSA customers complain the authority has been slow in responding to requests for lead testing.

Joanne Scoulos, 60, is a resident of Lawrenceville, where she also owns several rental properties. She said she submitted water samples for testing on September 9th and has yet to receive results.

“I’ve called twice, and they just basically say that they’re backlogged or their computer is down,” she said. Scoulos has been drinking bottled water since June, and has suggested to her tenants that they do the same.

Kevin Progar, 29, of California-Kirkbride said he has also called PWSA twice to schedule a pickup of his water sample, and has left messages both times with no response.

Barry Werber, 74, of Stanton Heights said he started the process for testing his water in early August. He said after the water sample was picked up, the lab called to tell him they had accidentally spilled it and he would have to submit another sample. That second sample was just picked up this week and Werber is still awaiting results, but he is worried about what he will do if the tests show elevated lead levels.

“Having been retired and having no outside income sources, to replace the lines in my house would be totally impossible unless I received aid of some sort,” he said. “I envision having to dig up my yard and my driveway.”

Not every customer has had a negative experience. Betsy Lamitina, 42, of Friendship requested her water be tested in July. She said the kit was dropped off and then picked up two days later. After about three weeks she called PWSA for her results and they told her that her lead levels were fine.

But for Chris Comeau, 31, an electrical engineer living in Stanton Heights, just knowing that lead levels were low was not enough. He said he had expected to get a written report in the mail, indicating not only lead levels but other particulates as well as the pH and hardness of his water.

“You’d think if they ran the sample they’d have those numbers,” he said. “They’re withholding for some reason; that’s my gut feeling.”

Cyrprych said PWSA had for years averaged 25-40 annual requests for lead tests. Since May, the authority has received 5,000 requests. Currently there are 600 customers waiting for testing kits and 500 whose samples are at the lab for testing.

“We did have to hire some temp employees initially, just because we didn’t have the staffing. Since it’s just continually building, these requests, we are starting to outsource this process,” she said.

PWSA’s old process involved sending someone out to a customer’s home to physically drop off testing kits and pick up water samples. Under the new process, testing kits will be mailed to customers and can be mailed directly to the lab that will do the analysis.

Results released by PWSA in July showed lead levels higher than the EPA action threshold of 15 parts per billion in 17 of 100 homes tested. As a result, the state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the authority to create a plan for replacing lead pipes.  

Cyrprich said she anticipates that the current volume of testing requests will continue. “We are preparing just to have it be part of the norm,” she said.

But Werber said the current PWSA testing backlog exposes a larger problem in Pittsburgh.

“We consider ourselves a modern city, with all of the hospitals, all the universities. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps when the steel industry went out,” he said. “And yet, the infrastructure of that city is falling apart and I don’t see too much being done to repair it.”