Listen up: If you live in Pittsburgh, your drinking water may be exceeding federal lead limits

The results are in: Lead levels in city drinking water have exceeded a federal limit.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] conducted required lead and copper compliance testing and discovered that 17 of its 100 water samples had lead levels greater than 15 parts per billion [ppb], the Environmental Protection Agency’s [EPA] threshold for action.

PWSA’s 90th percentile result was 22 ppb — this figure will be reported to the EPA and used in annual reports.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP]:

An action level exceedance is not a violation but triggers other requirements that include water quality parameter monitoring, corrosion control treatment, source water monitoring, public education and lead service line replacement.

The 100 water samples PWSA collected are supposed to come from “tier 1” homes, considered to be at high risk for lead service lines and plumbing. PWSA does not currently have records for all lead service lines, so this process can be hit or miss. Homes that do have lead plumbing are most susceptible because as the pipes wear, lead can seep into the water supply.

For this reason, testing methods have been faulty in many major U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh. From PublicSource:

Water officials are supposed to only test homes at a high-risk for lead, but in Pittsburgh 50 percent of the homes tested in 1991 were high-risk homes and 80 percent in 2013 were high-risk.

As PublicSource previously reported, Allegheny County did not ban lead pipes until 1969. In Pittsburgh, 83 percent of homes were built before 1970, leaving many homes vulnerable to corroding lead pipes.

Since 1999 — when PWSA’s lead was 2 ppb — the levels have been rising. In 2013, the lead level hovered at 14.8 ppb, just below the EPA’s line for major corrective action.

In a release, David Donahoe, interim executive director of PWSA, cited National Resources Defense Council’s analysis of EPA lead data. The report states that 5,300 water providers across the country are currently out of compliance with the lead and copper rule.

Donahoe said the potential for exceeding the EPA’s action level was “not unexpected.”

Lead, a colorless, odorless neurotoxin, can have lifelong effects in children. It slows brain development and can lead to a lower IQ.

The Pennsylvania Legislature is considering a proposed bill that would mandate all children under age 6 to be tested for lead.

Karen Hacker, director of Allegheny County Health Department, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that even if the bill dies at the state level, she wants the county to consider its own program.

In the meantime, the PWSA must develop public education materials and implement a public education program by Sept. 1, 2016. It must also develop a complete listing of all lead service lines and begin a replacement program that targets at least 7 percent of affected homes per year.

The DEP requires that the PWSA complete a second round of monitoring by Dec. 31, 2016.

The PWSA offers customers free lead testing kits. To order a free lead test kit, call 412-782-7552 or 412-782-7554 between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m Monday through Friday.

Reach Courtney Linder at clinder@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @CNL_13.