CP photo by Rebecca Addison
Controller Chelsa Wagner at press conference
According to an audit by the Allegheny County Controller's office, the Allegheny County Health Department still hasn't taken appropriate action to address high lead levels
in county and Pittsburgh drinking water.
The audit, released yesterday, examined at how the county health department monitors and responds to elevated lead levels in water. It reiterates concerns from an earlier audit
released last year where the controller's office said the health department was not taking measures to inform residents about lead risks in local water.
"I can say and I'm sorry to say what was found is much the same lack of action and denial of responsibility as in our first review," Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said at a July 25 press conference.
Among the audit's claims are that blood lead levels in Allegheny County are elevated above national levels. The controller's office says the ACHD has continued to rely on outdated methods for assessing lead exposure.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the national incidence rate of children with blood lead levels over 5 micrograms per decileter is 2.5 percent. In Allegheny County that rate is 7.33 percent and in Pittsburgh the rate is even higher at 8.32 percent. These numbers come from the 2014 Pa. Department of Health Blood Lead Surveillance Report.
The county controller's office says the ACHD calculates the incidence rate using a different method from the state health department. According to ACHD the county's incidence rate is 3.22 percent and Pittsburgh's incidence rate is 8.32 percent.
According to the audit, the ACHD's data does not include those children who have had only one elevated capillary test. Without including these children in the data, the county controller's office says the ACHD is undercounting the number of children with elevated lead blood levels.
"The health department has not only failed to increase awareness of alarming levels of elevated blood lead in Allegheny County children, it has repeatedly sought to deflect attention from these alarming statistics and to minimize water contamination as a source of lead poisoning," said Wagner. "No level of lead is safe."
But the ACHD has disputed the controller's findings. In a statement in response to the audit, ACHD Director Karen Hacker said, "We must dismiss these findings and recommendations wholly because of the misuse of data and the lack of evidence provided."
"The audit was conducted by non-public health professionals who, even when provided feedback and references, did not adhere to the standards for use of public health data followed by the Centers for Disease Control and public health agencies and entities across the country," the statement says.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Water and Sewer Authority
released new test results showing lead levels in local water do not exceed federal lead regulations.
"I'm very happy to see the city's water meets the federal action level for lead, and that lead levels have now dropped for the second testing period in a row," Mayor Bill Peduto
said in a statement. "While the work on the issue by the City and the PWSA over the past year is clearly paying off, there is still a lot of work to do and water users need to keep following PWSA guidance on how to reduce exposure to contaminants. Testing does not remove the fact that lead in water is still a grave public health matter, especially for pregnant women and young children, and we need to do all we can to eradicate it."
According to the PWSA, the city's 90th-percentile value in the latest testing equals 15 parts per billion which meets the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action level for lead. In the last round of results that figure was at 18 ppb in before that it was as high as 22 ppb.
At a press conference yesterday, Wagner was joined by Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech University, who helped uncover the lead contamination in Flint, Mich. And Edwards cautioned that PWSA's most recent results do not mean Pittsburghers are safe, because he says the federal Lead and Copper Rule regulating lead should be updated.
"In the aftermath of Flint what we've realized is that the existing Lead and Copper Rule is vastly inadequate," said Edwards. "I really do question the motivations of anyone who downplays the health risks of lead in water. This is a problem that needs to be taken seriously."
This audit was released the same day Pittsburgh City Council voted on two pieces of legislation related to lead lines. The Our Water Campaign released the following statement after City Council’s vote on ordinance 1614, which would require mandatory disclosure of lead plumbing in homes and resolution 1613 which would allow the city to replace the private portion of lead service line
when they are replacing the public portion.
"The Our Water Campaign wholeheartedly supports mandatory disclosure of lead plumbing. Every city resident, particularly those with children under 6, deserves access to clean drinking water. Lead poisoning can result in severe, long-term health problems, particularly on young children. New homeowners and renters must be given the right information and the opportunity to protect themselves and their families from lead poisoning.
We also support allowing the City to replace private lead service lines at little or no cost to homeowners and banning dangerous partial line replacements. The only long term solution to the pervasive problem of lead poisoning is replacing all lead lines in the City. But, no one should be financially punished for living in a home with a lead service line. Low-income residents in particular should not be forced to bear the cost of replacing lead service lines. We also feel strongly that the city should continue the program not just until we are no longer in violation of the lead and copper rule, but until no local child’s health is at risk because of a lead service line.
We have a lot more work to do, but these ordinances are an excellent first step towards safe, clean, affordable drinking water for all city residents.”