Lead pipes in home plumbing a worry in Western Pa.
The water flowing from the tap in Aaron Miller’s Green Tree home isn’t cloudy or discolored.
He can’t see lead in the water, but he worries it is in there. His house is 63 years old, built when lead pipes were commonly used to connect homes to water mains and lead solder was used to connect pipes inside homes.
“I’m sure that a good amount of the copper lines that are in my house are as old as my house, and there is probably lead in there,” Miller said. “I don’t know what it looks like. I don’t know what it tastes like. I don’t know what it smells like. I don’t know.”
Questions about lead levels in drinking water in Western Pennsylvania have percolated as the water crisis in Flint, Mich., has become a national issue. It’s a question in the presidential campaign and whenever someone turns on a tap.
But many in Western Pennsylvania don’t know whether they should be concerned. The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority was flooded with requests for free lead tests after the Tribune-Review reported that tests showed lead levels were approaching a federal warning threshold.
“There’s still a lot of lead lines feeding people’s homes,” said Tim Gillece, a plumber and CEO of Gillece Services, a plumbing, heating, cooling, electrical and waterproofing company in Bridgeville. “That’s like drinking out of lead glasses or cups. It’s horrible.”
Directors of the state departments of Health and Environmental Protection have suggested checking tap water and home plumbing for the presence of lead as part of a strategy to reduce exposure. The state DEP dedicated a new section of its website to addressing the soft metal in drinking water.
Miller, 38, lives with his wife and two dogs, and receives his water from Pennsylvania-American Water Co., which reported lead levels far below the federal threshold. Penn-American does not provide free lead testing, but concerned about lead levels, Miller found a lab in Warrendale that will test his water for $50 a sample.
About 8 percent of children in Pittsburgh had elevated levels of lead in their blood, according to a 2014 study from the state Department of Health. The city ranked 18th out of 20 cities included in the report. Allentown, in Eastern Pennsylvania, topped the list with elevated blood levels in 23 percent of children. Counties in Western Pennsylvania had between about 4 percent — Somerset and Fayette counties — and 13.5 percent — Cambria — of children with elevated levels of lead, the study found. About 7 percent of children in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties had elevated levels.
The Pennsylvania report notes that the greatest lead risk to children is not water, but lead-based paint.
The water crisis in Flint, where about 3 percent of the children citywide had elevated lead levels, according to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services data, as well as the prevalence of lead in children prompted Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, to support a bill intended to prevent a crisis. The Improving Notification for Clean and Safe Drinking Water Act would require widespread notification of high lead levels and allow the federal Environmental Protection Agency to intercede when local or state agencies fail.
“I think Flint is a wake-up call for the country,” Casey said last month.
Determining the risk of lead leaching into a home’s water could be as easy as nicking a pipe in your basement, plumbers and home inspectors said. But remedying the problem could cost thousands of dollars.
Digging up and replacing a lead service line or ridding indoor plumbing of lead solder can cost $15,000 to $25,000, Gillece said. Filters that remove lead and chemicals from water can cost between $5,000 and $7,000.
Allegheny County banned the use of lead pipes in plumbing in 1969 and further banned lead solder in 1988 to keep up with federal regulations. The American Water Works Association estimates that as many as 6.5 million lead service mains might be in use across the country.
About 65 percent of homes in Western Pennsylvania were built before 1970, according to census data. In Allegheny County, 71 percent of houses, or more than 420,000, were built before the county banned lead pipes. About 61 percent of homes in Westmoreland County, nearly 102,000, were built before 1970. Butler County has the lowest percentage of pre-1970 homes at 41 percent, or about 33,000 homes.
Gillece said most of the lead solder inside homes in the area has been replaced, but many lead service lines remain.
Lead service mains are gray and thick, Gillece said. They are typically in basements next to a home’s water meter and end in a large bulb of solder used to connect copper or other pipes. To test if a service main is made of lead, nick it with a screwdriver or knife, Gillece said. Lead is soft and should scratch easily, leaving a silver streak.
Tim O’Leary, a former general contractor from North Huntingdon who switched to conducting home inspections in 2005, said he finds lead service lines in 15 to 20 percent of the homes he inspects. O’Leary said he will photograph the pipe and talk with the potential homeowners.
“We’re the messengers,” O’Leary said of housing inspectors. “I usually say, ‘If you don’t know any of the perils of having lead in your drinking water, I suggest you look into it.’ ”
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer.