The topic of Lead contamination in water and soil has been widely discussed in the media recently. From the national media to the local level, a lot of information about known and possible contamination has been pushed into the spotlight. With the attention placed on the challenges our community is facing with Lead, many people may be scared or confused about what it means for their health and safety.

DECO Resources has prepared information on common urban Lead exposure in Pittsburgh.

Where Lead Comes From

Lead is among the most common and dangerous urban contamination risks. As a soft metal, it was used in many common household items, like paint and water pipes. When it was discovered to be hazardous to human health, our society began eliminating it from products that people commonly come in contact with. However, older cities like Pittsburgh still have materials containing Lead in our built environment.

Although considered dangerous for anyone, people most at-risk to ill effects are children, women who may become pregnant, and the elderly. Lead becomes dangerous when it is consumed in food and water or by breathing in dust with Lead particles. With this in mind, our goal should be to focus efforts on protecting these sensitive populations. A first step is to identify where the Lead exposure might come from.

A standard residential water line might be made from Lead, resulting in contaminated drinking water.

How Lead Affects Residents of Pittsburgh

The most common pathways for exposure are in our drinking water or from paint and soil dust. It should also be acknowledged that risk of detrimental effects can increase if someone is exposed through multiple sources. The only way to know actual exposure is to test blood Lead levels (BLLs).

Once Lead contamination is identified in our homes, the next question is how to reduce exposure. Many solutions are simple, but the large and complicated challenge is how to fund the remediation. In our homes, it is important to keep a fresh coat of paint over any walls with Lead paint. If Lead paint is chipping, it might need to be removed by a certified professional. For water, the most likely cause of contamination lies in buried service lines. Half of the line is owned by the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority, but they are only required to replace 7% of Lead lines per year. The other half of the service line needs to be replaced at the cost of the home owner. Lead contamination is also common in the soil around our homes from particles in the air or paint chips. Bare soil should be covered with grass or at least three inches of mulch. In some cases, new soil needs to be brought in.

For home owners, many of whom have low or fixed income, this can be quite a burden. For renters, it might be difficult to encourage their landlords to provide remediation even though landlords face potential liability if they don’t prevent exposure to known hazardous conditions. For the PWSA, all water users will bear the burden of increased costs for replacement of City-owned Lead lines.

These challenges will certainly affect many at-risk groups disproportionately and it is imperative that our community works toward finding equitable solutions. Education must be our top priority. People need to be informed of the risks. Only then can we effectively identify appropriate solutions. State and local governments will need to be engaged to help provide financial support to financially challenged individuals. Together, Pittsburgh has to create a unified strategy to ensure the health and safety of our residents.

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