Pittsburgh City Councilman Bobby Wilson spoke at the City-County Building on Tuesday about the anxiety parents face when they await the results of tests for lead in their children's blood. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

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Allegheny County and Pittsburgh’s water authority already have two of the most progressive policies in the country in place to address lead poisoning in children. 

The county health department requires all children to be tested for lead poisoning twice by age 2. And the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has replaced more than half of the city’s lead service lines and is on pace to replace them all by 2025.

But around 400 children are still testing with elevated lead in their blood every year in Allegheny County. Talor Musil, an advocate with Women for a Healthy Environment, said those children could face impacts that last a lifetime, including lower IQs, decreased ability to focus and poor impulse control. 

“Right now, children are serving as lead detectors in their home environments,” Musil said at a Tuesday morning press conference at the City-County Building to promote new city legislation.

Several City Council members and a representative for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto promoted a bill they are introducing today that will try to cut off some of the most common pathways of exposure for children. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lead in the water is typically not the most significant source of lead poisoning for infants, except for those who are drinking formula. Councilwoman Deborah Gross said it was important that the city begins to address the biggest sources of contamination for most infants in the county: lead paint, soil and dust.

Councilman Bobby Wilson said that he and his wife, like most parents in the county, felt nervous every time one of their three children was tested for lead poisoning.

“Every time we waited for that test to come back we were worried, we were worried because we lived in a house that’s 100 years old,” he said. “We knew that maybe we were not the best at cleaning up sometimes.”

Because the lead contamination doesn’t come from a single source or pathway, the city’s proposed new lead ordinance takes a multipronged approach:

  • Rental homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, would be tested for the presence of lead paint and dust routinely and, if found, it would have to be remediated. Renters who request testing would be protected from retaliation. This will add an additional layer of inspection, if the city’s rental registry is enacted.
  • Demolition permits would have to have a lead-safe plan in place.
  • Contractors who work on spaces built before 1978 would have to demonstrate they could complete their work in a lead-safe manner.
  • Filters would be installed on city-owned water facilities.

The city has set aside $2 million of federal COVID relief money to get the new ordinance off the ground, including additional money to train inspectors. That represents only about 2% of the more than $100 million being spent by the water authority to replace the city’s lead service lines.

But Gross said the cost of remediating old homes is only $200 on average, compared to $8,000 to replace a lead service water line. “So I think that’s a about 2% of the cost of replacing lead service lines,” Gross said. “We’re about on target.”

Allegheny County allocates up to $12,000 for remediation work for renters or homeowners who live in buildings constructed before 1978 and who earn less than 80% of the area’s median income. The program was slow to get off the ground, PublicSource reported in 2019. 

Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, the executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, told PublicSource earlier this year that the city’s ordinance was being modeled off of other programs in cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Toledo.

There are many many cities across the country that have adopted lead ordinances and Pittsburgh has fallen behind,” she said.

Public comment is expected to be possible at the city council meeting on Nov. 1

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...