The Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority is working to address high lead levels, but misinformation and current testing practices could put residents at risk | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority is working to address high lead levels, but misinformation and current testing practices could put residents at risk

“They are giving the worst possible advice for homes with lead service lines.”

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But PWSA isn’t all to blame. The 15-to-30-second guideline comes from an EPA Public Information instruction sheet for utilities to inform customers about lead risks. The instruction sheet also says 15 to 30 seconds, “unless the system has representative data indicating a different flushing time would better reduce lead exposure in the community.”

Adding to the confusion, another resource — the EPA’s lead-information page — recommends that users flush their lines for “two minutes or longer.” And EPA regulations from as far back as 1992 show recommendations for homes with lead service lines to run water an additional minute after it turns cold.

In response to City Paper’s findings about the confusing flushing guidelines, EPA spokesperson David Sternberg says, “It is likely that systems with lead service lines will need to collect data to determine the appropriate flushing time for lead service lines.” In essence, water agencies should develop their own guidelines based on local conditions.

For its part, PWSA says that its pipe-flushing guidelines are approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which recommends the same procedure on its “Lead in Drinking Water” homepage. 

Asked for comment regarding Edwards’ concerns, J.J. Abbott, deputy press secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf, told City Paper, “DEP has been continually engaged with PWSA since elevated lead levels were discovered; the agency continually evaluates its guidance to ensure that it is compliant with best practices.

“In the specific instance where properties have or are suspected of having lead service lines, DEP will be updating its guidance to recommend longer flushing of lines to better ensure the safety of water for drinking and cooking.”

In addition to the issues with the guidelines PWSA is giving to consumers on how to flush lead, experts and the EPA itself cast serious doubts on the effectiveness of testing procedures in protecting citizens or uncovering the full extent of lead contamination.

“There’s no scientific rationale to say that you are doing a systematic analysis,” says Partha Basu, chair of chemistry and chemical biology at Indiana University-Purdue University, in  Indianapolis, and a specialist in toxic-metal chemistry. 

In October, the EPA released a white paper exploring potential changes to federal regulations and saying that “current water sampling protocols were designed to assess the adequacy of [corrosion-control treatment], not the level of human exposure to lead.”

It also states that “important fluctuations in water lead levels can be missed because of limitations inherent in sampling protocols that EPA uses, making it difficult to assess household exposure through drinking water.”

In addition, records acquired by City Paper show that PWSA did not test equitably across the city. The 15217 area code of Greenfield and Squirrel Hill had 25 testing sites; 15206 (East Liberty) had the second most, at 12. Some neighborhoods, like Allentown (15210), had no testing sites, while 15219, which covers part of the Hill District, Polish Hill and Uptown, had just one. 

“We do try to test in every single community,” said Gina Cyprych, acting director of water quality and production at PWSA. “With the lead and copper rules, that is not one of the requirements; you just need to make sure you’re meeting a tier one [requirement]. But as a facility, we want to have the most representative sample as possible based on the constraints that we have in every area.”

Besides sample size, the other significant shortcoming of federally regulated compliance tests are that they rely on a “first-draw” sample that asks residents to collect a one-liter sample from a commonly used kitchen or bathroom sink after at least six hours of inactivity. 

These samples collect water that may have sat overnight in brass or bronze fixtures forged with lead, not water that has been sitting in the lead service lines.

One of the white paper recommendations is to use sequential sampling — taking one sample immediately after another after another — to “characterize lead levels in drinking water that has been in contact with premise plumbing and the [lead service line].

In his peer-reviewed study from the 2004 Washington, D.C., lead crisis, public-water-supply expert Edwards and former graduate student Abhijeet Dudi used this method to find that: “In marked contrast to the conventional wisdom, lead levels were not worst in the first-draw samples at some homes in WASA, but sometimes were worst after 1 min of flushing.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the same results would arise in Pittsburgh, but no one is testing in this manner to see if samples from the service lines contain elevated lead levels. 

After PWSA’s lead-level exceedance was announced this past summer, Clean Water Action of Pennsylvania called for immediate action on three points: identifying the cause of rising proportions of homes testing high for lead; ensuring all homes with lead service lines are offered water tests, and that all children in those homes are offered blood tests for lead; and accelerating the replacement of lead service lines. 

Myron Arnowitt, state director of Clean Water Action, says that he “has not seen great progress” since the group called for action. He says there has been some work in replacing lead service lines, but that “there is not a systematic program in place to deal with the lead service lines in the city, and that’s really what our aim would be.”

As for the other two points, “I don’t think any progress has been made on why lead has risen for the past 10 years, and there hasn’t been any aggressive attempt to increase lead blood screenings,” he says.

One Pittsburgh resident looking into blood screenings is Steve Hayashi. Like many, Hayashi first started to worry about lead in city water when elevated levels in Flint, Mich., became national news.

A Squirrel Hill resident and father of 3-year-old twins, Hayashi says his family has been drinking filtered water since 2014, but he didn’t know the filters don’t get rid of lead. After hearing about elevated lead levels in Pittsburgh, he requested a free lead test from PWSA. (Free screenings are available to all of the PWSA’s 81,000 households.)

“I said that we should check it just to be sure,” he remembers. “I figured we were OK; if there was a problem in the neighborhood, we’d have heard about it.”

Hayashi sent a sample to PWSA in August, but by late November he still hadn’t heard back, so he purchased a commercial test at Home Depot. A short while later, he received his answer: 23 parts per billion, well over the maximum federal contaminant level goal of 15 ppb. 

Since receiving the results, Hayashi plans to have his 3-year-olds re-tested for elevated lead levels in their blood. He’s checked all the visible pipes in his home, and he’s fairly confident they aren’t made of lead. The only exposed portion of service line is too corroded to tell what it’s made of. He has also installed a commercial-grade filter on his kitchen faucet, but he admits it’s only a temporary solution. 

“I don’t know where the problem exists,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure out a long-term solution.”

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