Homes with children don’t get priority in PWSA’s lead line replacements
Homes where young children and pregnant women live get priority from lead line replacement programs in three Midwest cities trying to rid drinking water of lead, a neurotoxin that can impair the development of young brains.
Pittsburgh isn’t one of them.
That concerns mother Aubrea Rogers, who said her daughter, Brooklyn, 3, has a high lead level in her blood according to a blood test she took in the fall. Ever since then, Rogers has been filtering water in her Point Breeze house, but she worries that isn’t enough.
She wants Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority to find out if her home has a lead service line, and if it does, to replace it.
“I would feel much more comfortable,” said Rogers, who has rented her 1920s Penn Avenue home for 10 years.
PWSA, which is exceeding a federal drinking water lead content threshold, has replaced more than 450 lead lines since July 2016. The authority does not consider whether children younger than 6 or pregnant women live in the home when deciding which lines to replace first.
“It’s incredibly important for that segment of the population — kids under 6, especially under 1, and pregnant women — to not be drinking water with lead in it,” said Paul Schwartz with the DC-based Campaign for Lead Free Water, which works to get lead out of drinking water. “There is no doubt that (PWSA) needs to comply with the federal lead and copper rule regulations, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t be targeting those who are most vulnerable if they have a limited amount of funds and time available.”
Pittsburgh gave families with children and pregnant women priority when it distributed free lead-filtering water pitchers this year. PWSA officials told the Tribune-Review that prioritizing line replacements in a similar way would be time-consuming and more costly.
Officials in Flint, Mich., prioritize lead line replacements in homes with children under 6, children with high lead levels, pregnant women, and those that serve as residential day cares.
Flint has vowed to replace all of its estimated 20,000 lead lines by 2020. PWSA estimates it has about 17,750 lead lines.
Cincinnati, Ohio, which is preparing to start a lead line replacement program, plans to give priority to homes where small children live, along with considering other factors.
In Green Bay, Wis., if residents tell the water authority that children live in a house, it moves up on the replacement list.
Unlike Pittsburgh, those cities don’t have systems that are exceeding a federal lead level threshold. They’re not under a deadline to replace lead lines.
PWSA could face state-imposed civil penalties for falling behind on lead pipe replacements and missing the deadline to replace at least 1,341 lead lines, or 7 percent of the lines in its system, by June 30.
PWSA halted a partial line replacement program because of concerns that it caused level levels in some homes to spike. Instead, the authority is trying to replace as many full lines as possible.
To achieve that, PWSA selects which lines to replace first by finding pockets of about 200 homes throughout the city that are the oldest and most likely to have lead lines.
“To date, the authority has organized lead service line replacements by neighborhood because its efficiency gives us the best chance to meet EPA and DEP requirements,” said Will Pickering, PWSA spokesman. “Performing one-off replacements would also be more costly and disruptive to residents.”
After PWSA is in compliance with EPA requirements, it plans to continue lead line replacements, and might start considering whether a child with a high lead level lives in the home, Pickering said.
The Allegheny County Health Department does not have a list of all children in the city younger than 6, but it does have addresses for children whose blood samples tested higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter — the CDC’s lead action level, said Dr. Karen Hacker, department director.
“We have been in discussion with PWSA about data sharing and are pursuing as long as we are assuring that we are complying with all state and federal privacy requirements,” Hacker said. “Data sharing should serve the purpose of improving our care for children and should exclude partial lead line replacement.”
The health department’s inspections of homes where lead-poisoned children live have not determined that water is the primary source of lead, Pickering said.
Last year, ACHD performed 24 home inspections countywide, but expects to perform more this year.
Even if lead that has leeched from pipes into the drinking water is not the primary source of contamination, it’s assumed to be a contributing factor, said Hacker via Abby Wilson, an ACHD spokeswoman.
Replacing lead lines won’t necessarily eliminate lead from drinking water because homes might have solder that contains lead, but it does remove about 60 percent of it, said Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist who helped uncover the Flint lead crisis.
Dan Scheid said he would welcome the opportunity to remove the majority of the lead flowing into his family’s 1940s Squirrel Hill home.
The father, who has children ages 9, 6 and 4, requested a water test kit from PWSA last year, but it hasn’t arrived, Scheid said.
“We got a filter, but if the whole line was replaced, it would make me feel a lot better,” Scheid said.
A cluster of Squirrel Hill homes a half-mile away were inspected for lead lines and might get line replacements. Scheid’s home wasn’t included.
PWSA-contracted crews recently excavated at each home on Radium Street in the city’s Perry North neighborhood — one of the pockets chosen to receive lead line replacements, if possible.
There were no pregnant women or children younger than 6 living in any of the four homes where crews dug.
Rich Dixon and George Wanner, who have both lived in their Radium Street homes for decades, each received lead line replacements earlier this month, but said they have not been concerned about lead in their water.
“If something kills me, it won’t be that,” Dixon joked.
Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tclift.