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Flint Engineer Says Pittsburgh Lead Levels Encouraging, But Not Something To ‘Brag’ About

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech. professor of civil and environmental engineering who helped uncover the Flint water crisis discusses the similarites between Flint and Pittsburgh.

The environmental engineer who worked to expose the Flint lead crisis in 2014 said Pittsburgh’s drinking water lead levels are higher than the Michigan city, but he’s encouraged by downward trends.

Marc Edwards, the engineer, was invited to speak by Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, whose office also presented a 30-page audit of the county health department Tuesday. 

He said an inadequate lead and copper rule that dictates how communities test for and control lead in drinking water is partly to blame for lead problems.

Edwards said it will still be years until the EPA enacts major changes in the guidance it offers, as more scientific understanding comes out of the aftermath in Flint. EPA officials have said they're working to revise the rule.

He agreed with Wagner’s report, which said Pittsburgh has one of the highest lead levels in the country. He said the city’s level is higher than the levels of lead in Flint’s water.

“People in Flint are still being told the water coming from a lead pipe is not safe to drink,” he said.

Meanwhile, Edwards said the recent lead test results in Pittsburgh show a positive trend, but the levels are still relatively high and a health concern.

“But barely getting under this antiquated standard that no rational people believe is protective enough is not something to brag about,” he said. “Thankfully nobody is bragging, at least that I’ve heard in the last few weeks other than the trend is good, which I’d agree with.”

Pittsburgh is similar to Flint in that the water many residents drink passes through aging service lines once it leaves a treatment plant. Those lines are often times made of lead, which leeches particles into the water as it travels into residents' homes. 

Edwards said repeatedly that the method of partially replacing lead lines is a waste of money because it doesn’t address the problem. He said the money could be better spent on public education and filters.

“We’re actually paying to make the situation worse and everyone can agree that’s a really bad idea,” he said.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority halted that practice last month. It’s required to replace 7 percent of its lead service lines every year, under state and federal regulation. But, partially replacing lines turned out to be problematic as some homes were actually seeing higher lead levels after the replacements.

Edwards said New Orleans and Milwaukee have chosen to spend money on filtering the water rather than partially replacing lines.

Wagner’s report criticized the county health department, saying it has downplayed the extent of lead exposure in the region. The performance audit of the department investigated if lead in the county’s drinking water had affected the health of residents.

“[The department] has repeatedly sought to deflect attention from these alarming statistics and to minimize water contamination as a source of lead poisoning,” she said.

The audit shows that the county health department has especially inaccurately reported the number of cases of children with elevated lead levels. Young children are more susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning.

While the county calculates the number of children who are confirmed twice in three months to have an elevated level of lead in their blood, the state calculates the total number of cases whether they were re-tested or not.

The county health department says 3 percent of Allegheny County children have elevated levels of lead in their blood compared to the state’s data that show 7 percent of county children have elevated levels. In Pittsburgh, the county reports that 5 percent of children have elevated blood lead levels while the state says 8 percent do.

The county health department disputes that claim. In a statement, Allegheny County Health Director Karen Hacker said the report was misleading, inaccurate and a, “potentially dangerous use of public health information.”

Hacker said no level of lead is safe and, “We must do everything we can to protect the public health of our residents.”

Hacker has repeatedly said lead paint in the county is more of a concern for young children and mothers than lead-tainted drinking water.

The county health department’s response to the audit includes four points of concern. First, the health department argues that the Department of Environmental Protection is the regulatory authority for the federal lead and copper rule and is responsible for public education. Second, the health department said confirmed blood lead levels among children are, “trending downward.”

Hacker said a quote of hers used in the report, focusing on the health risks from lead, was taken out of context. Hacker said the health department has proactively tested water in the homes of any child investigated for elevated blood lead levels. Finally, the health department said the three investigations cited in the audit were not fully explained.

“Throughout the audit, there were no questions or reviews of our work focused on other lead activities including presentations, educational materials or website information,” she said. “We readily acknowledge that all stakeholders can do more, but suggesting in any way that ACHD has been derelict in its duties to protect the health of the residents of the county misrepresents the daily work that hundreds of employees do on behalf of those residents each day.”

Starting Jan. 1, 2018, all Allegheny County children will have to be tested for blood lead between the ages of 9-12 months and again at 24 months. Allegheny County Council approved that measure earlier this month. 

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.