Is there lead in my water? How do I know if my water is safe to drink?

As an Allegheny County resident, is lead in my drinking water something I should worry about?

Recently, the lead levels in Pittsburgh water tested at one of the lowest levels in more than two decades.

That said, individual households or neighborhoods may still have issues. Most of the lead in people’s water supply today comes from location-specific sources, such as lead service lines running from a house to the water main, lead pipes (more likely in houses built before 1986), lead soldering on pipes or brass faucets. Over time, water corrodes the metal, and the lead seeps into the water.

These sources of lead could contaminate your home’s water, even if the overall water in your area is safe. As Pittsburgh’s water equity task force has shown, such problems disproportionately affect people of color and residents of low-income neighborhoods, who are more likely to live in areas with underfunded or outdated infrastructure.

It’s also worth noting that water isn’t the top cause of lead poisoning in Allegheny County (even if it’s the first one that comes to mind for most people). According to recent Allegheny County Health Department inspections, paint and dust are bigger threats. With that in mind, this guide includes information about testing for lead in these other sources, too.

If you detect lead in your home, take it seriously. Lead is a neurotoxin that can be dangerous even in small amounts. Elevated lead levels in children can cause problems with brain and nervous system development, behavior, learning, speech and hearing. Prolonged exposure in adults can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and fertility issues, plus short-term symptoms like nausea and memory loss or distractibility.

How do I figure out if there’s lead in my house or water?

If you’re concerned about your lead exposure, you might opt for a full home lead risk assessment. This assessment, performed by professionals, includes tests of your paint, dust and soil — the most common sources of lead exposure — as well as your water, if that seems like a risk factor in your case.

As part of the local “Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh” initiative, coordinated by the nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment, you could be eligible for a free or reduced-cost lead risk assessment.Fill out this form to register.

The Allegheny County Health Department also provides some free resources to qualifying households. These resources include blood lead level testing for children who are uninsured or underinsured and free full home lead assessments for households with children whose blood lead levels are elevated by the Center for Disease Control’s standards (above 5 ppb). The ACHD’s “Get Ahead of Lead” resource list contains more information and instructions for who to contact.

How can I have my household’s water tested?

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority offers free testing of residential drinking water for all of its customers. You can fill out this form online, email the Lead Help Desk at LeadHelp@pgh2o.com or call 412-255-8987. Once they confirm you’re a PWSA customer, they will send you a drinking water test kit. You follow the instructions in the kit to take water samples from your home and send them to the laboratory. They send you back the results and add them to their anonymized database of samples.

Lead levels can vary based on factors like the time of year, where you drew the sample in your house and how long the water sat in the pipes before you collected the sample. Because of this, you would need to perform tests several times to confirm whether lead is a problem in your water, according to Michael Blackhurst, a research scientist at the Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

If you’re not a PWSA customer, the 2020 report “Something’s in the Water” contains a list of water authorities that said they offer or help to facilitate residential drinking water tests.

You could also opt to have your water tested for lead and/or other contaminants independently at your own expense. Testing for lead is usually around $50 per sample. (In some cases, that price includes testing for other contaminants, too.)

Here are two labs accredited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that offer drinking water tests for residents of Allegheny County:

What’s a water quality report? How do I read it?

The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] requires that public water systems test their water for contaminants annually and share the results with consumers. These quality reports are called Consumer Confidence Reports [CCR]. Most water systems in Allegheny County publish their reports online. You can also call to request a mailed copy.

When a water company gets a sample, it measures the amount of each contaminant within the overall amount of water in the sample. This is usually expressed as “parts per million,” “parts per billion,” or even “parts per trillion.” In other words, if you had a million or a billion tiny blocks or units before you, how many of those units would be the contaminant? One part per billion [ppb] is equivalent to one drop in an Olympic size swimming pool.

For most contaminants, water systems’ annual Consumer Confidence Reports will tell you the average amount of the contaminant detected across the collected samples. They will also tell you the range they observed across the samples, or the highest and lowest levels observed. For lead and copper, they will instead tell you the level of lead in the 90th percentile of samples taken (so the place where 10% of samples were worse, 90% were better).

The reports will also usually list the recommended and legal limits from the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]. The official name for these are the maximum contaminant level goals [MCLGs] and maximum contaminant levels [MCLs].

What’s the difference? The maximum contaminant level goal [MCLG] is the highest amount of a contaminant you can have in drinking water without any known negative health effects. The MCLG for lead, for example, is zero. The EPA holds there are no “safe” levels of lead in drinking water, especially for children, infants and pregnant people.

Is there lead in my water? How do I know if my water is safe to drink?

However, the EPA reasons that this goal isn’t always realistic. Therefore, the EPA’s legal limit is different from the goal limit. The legal limit is called the maximum contaminant level [MCL].

In some cases, including lead and copper, the EPA sets a goal but not a legal limit. This happens when the contaminants could come from factors determined to be beyond water systems’ control, like the lead in people’s faucets or the pipes.

In those cases, the EPA instead sets “treatment technique rules” [TTR] and an “action level.” TTRs can help limit the risks of exposure. For example, the TTRs governing lead and copper require water systems with consistent problems in samples from customer taps to limit the corrosiveness of water (which can cause lead pipes to break down and contaminate water faster) and to help educate people about lead in water.

“Action levels” are the point at which water systems must make changes in their behavior to avoid formal violations. The action level for lead is 15 ppb (with the EPA currently debating whether to lower it to 10 ppb.) If a water system’s samples test above that level, the EPA requires the water system to replace lead service lines and launch programs to better educate people.

Action levels are not intended to be used by individuals trying to determine what’s “safe” in their homes. They serve a function for water systems.

I know there are some contaminants in my tap water. Is it still safe to drink?

Let’s start with lead.

As we already said, the EPA set its Maximum Contaminant Level Goal for lead at zero. That’s because, according to the EPA, there are no “safe” exposure levels for lead. Even small amounts can cause long-term damage over time, especially to children, infants and developing fetuses.

Since there are often no immediate symptoms of lead exposure, the only way to know if trace amounts of lead in your water is putting you or your family at risk is to have a blood test done by your doctor.

And let’s say your children’s pediatrician does detect trace amounts of lead in their blood. How concerned should you be then?

Until recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would consider a child’s blood lead level to be “concerning” if a blood test showed they had 10 or more micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (or 10 ppb). Now, with a new way of measuring, the level of concern is more like 5 ppb. If your child’s blood lead level is below 5 ppb, the CDC does not consider it to be an elevated level.

Should your child’s blood lead level test above 5 ppb, water might not necessarily be the problem. It’s even more likely to be your paint or dust. Full home lead risk assessments can help you find the source of the lead exposure.

For water contaminants other than lead, “safe” can be tricky to determine, said Talor Musil, the health policy coordinator at Women for a Healthy Environment. Often, the more scientists learn about a contaminant, the stricter the safety guidelines around it become.

The best thing you can do is be cautious, Musil said, and if you’re able, you might choose to filter your water regardless of contamination levels.

Scientists disagree on how well EPA guidelines serve as safety benchmarks.

The EPA states that, for most people, water with contaminant levels under its legal limits is safe to drink. At the same time, the EPA recognizes that sensitive populations like children, the elderly and pregnant people can withstand less exposure.

Some scientists argue the EPA gives too much consideration to the cost of water treatment methods, not enough to simply what’s healthy. They also point out that many EPA guidelines were set 20 to 40 years ago and haven’t been updated as treatment methods have become more affordable.

In response, some states have set their own limits, which are stricter than the EPA’s. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is currently working to set limits on PFAS or “forever chemicals,” for example. Since the EPA delegates primary responsibility for regulating water to states, that falls within states’ purview.

Additionally, a non-government organization, the Environmental Working Group [EWG], has emerged with its own recommended limits for common water contaminants.

EWG runs an online Tap Water Database, searchable by your zip code. Using data from public water system annual reports, the EWG will tell you both whether your water falls within the EPA’s legal limits and your water’s rating according to their own guidelines. It also suggests filters you can buy to reduce your risk for each contaminant.

What should I do if my home has lead pipes? How can I reduce my family’s risk of lead poisoning?

In the long term, the crucial step in removing lead from Pittsburgh-area drinking water is for water authorities to replace the lead service lines in many older neighborhoods. Service lines connect individual houses’ pipes to the water main running under the street. If your service line is made of lead, that’s a potentially large source of exposure.

Replacement is an expensive effort that demands community collaboration. Often, service lines are publicly owned from street to curb and privately owned from curb to house. Replacing only part of the line may actually stir up higher lead levels in water. Therefore, private citizens must wait until water authorities are ready to replace the full line at once. A key concern of the Pittsburgh Water Equity Taskforce is to make sure these changes benefit the people who are most at risk, including low-income neighborhoods and people of color.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has pledged to fully replace lead service lines in its system by 2026. It has already replaced thousands of these lines — at a cost of tens of millions of dollars — which is one reason customers have seen rising water bills. This map shows the location of lead service lines in their system and replacements they’ve already done.

In the short term, and in cases where lead service lines aren’t the issue, your first step should be to filter your water using an NSF-certified filter, Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, said. A basic, pitcher-style filter by ZeroWater, a partner of the City of Pittsburgh, can run between $15 and $50 before coupons.

Since 2017, Women for a Healthy Environment has helped connect people in Allegheny County who need water filters with the appropriate resources. If you think you could benefit from a water filter and either can’t afford one, don’t know where to find one or don’t know what to get, you can contact them at 412-404-2872 or info@gettheleadoutpgh.org.

The EPA suggests these additional steps to reduce your risk of lead exposure:

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin.

This story was fact-checked by Amelia Winger.

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