PWSA officials explain about lead in water
Examples of old lead service pipes and new PEX plastic pipe displayed by PWSA officials at the South Side Market House.
Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority officials came to the South Side Market House to talk to Council District 3 residents about lead in drinking, but they emphasized they are still learning the extent of the problem in Pittsburgh.
Bernie Lindstrom, executive director of PWSA, assured those residents in attendance the city has a robust and capable water system that is doing a "fantabulous" job of providing clean, safe drinking water, but that parts of the system are 120 years old or more. Currently, they system serves about 300,000 people a day.
Mr. Lindstrom said to accommodate those people, the PWSA processes about 70 million gallons of water per day. The authority has a permit from the state to treat up to 100 million gallons a day and the system was designed and build to process up to 200 million gallons.
The system is a single system with little redundancy, he said, with one water treatment plant along the Allegheny River in Aspinwall serving the entire city. It also uses an open reservoir system where some of the water is stored outside and goes through another filtration process before being sent out to be used.
The first thing Robert Weimar, interim director of engineering and construction for PWSA, did as part of his presentation was to assure those at the meeting the city water mains were not made of lead. Water at the treatment plant is also tested "several hundred" times a week and there is no detection of lead.
He pointed out one of the biggest things that can affect water quality is temperature. Since the treatment plant operates year-round and temperature can affect water quality, which is continuously monitored.
While the water mains aren't made of lead, sometimes the service lines coming off the mains and going into a building are made of lead, particularly for unrenovated homes built before 1950. The PWSA is in the process of replacing lead pipes from the main to the curb stop outside the home when they locate them.
"We don't know where they all are," Mr. Weimar said. In many cases the lead pipes have already been replaced when other work was done. He estimated that 20-30 percent or 16,000 to 20,000 city homes still have lead service lines.
Although it's PWSA's responsibility to replace the lead lines from the main to the curb stop, it is the property owner's responsibility to replace the lead pipes going into the house from the curb stop.
A lead pipe is generally a dull gray in color. Several ways a home owner can check their service line coming into the house include: scratching the pipe lightly with a key, since lead is a soft metal the scratch would reveal a silver color, or a magnet may also be used, lead is non-magnetic and the magnet won't stick.
To mitigate the possibility of lead in the drinking water, PWSA has been adding chemicals into the water which allows a film to develop on the pipes, creating a barrier and keeping the lead from getting into the water. Generally, they now use calcium carbonate to create the film, but have used other chemicals from time to time depending on the situation.
It was noted there has been an increase in the amount of lead in the water in some cases from 10 ppb (parts per billion) to 20 ppb, but the officials couldn't explain why.
Residents who are concerned about their water can request a free test kit by calling 412-255-2423 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Once the test kit is returned, it takes about 10 days to get the results.
In District 3 so far, 447 test kits were requested and of those 152 were returned. No detectable lead (less than 1 ppb) was found in 86 of the kits; 26 had more than 1 but less than 4.9 ppb; 10 had 5-9.9 ppb; 7 had 10-14.9 ppb; and, 23 registered 15 ppb or higher.
Some things residents can do to lessen the chance of having lead in their cooking or drinking water is to run the water before using. Lead can build up in standing water in the pipe, flushing the pipe by running the water helps to move it along. It was suggested residents take a shower, flush the toilet or run the water for 30 seconds or until it's cold before drinking or cooking.
Another suggestion was to use a NSF approved water filter, either for the entire house or at the faucet. A list of approved filters is available at http://www.nsf.org.
It's not recommended people boil water before drinking. Boiling will not remove the lead from water.
Mr. Weimar said PWSA continues to look for their lead service lines, from the main to the curb box, to replace, but prefers to replace the service lines when they a new replacement main is installed. If PWSA replaces its portion of a lead service line, they will leave the hole open for 45 days to allow the homeowner to replace their portion from the curb box into the home.
Leaving the hole open lessens the expense in what can be a costly expense for a homeowner.
Mr. Lindstrom said the PWSA will share the inventory of lead lines on a website once they are all known.
Something else the authority is exploring is a way to help those who can't afford to replace the lead service lines in their homes. Currently, he said, there are no funds for replacement of lead pipes in private homes.
Another possible program in the future could be a voucher system to help pay for water filters, but that program is still in the talking phase and hasn't been implemented.
To learn more about lead in Pittsburgh water, visit: http://www.pgh20.com/lead-facts.