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Inside the Classroom

Education & You: How lead in the water impacts Pittsburgh's youngest residents

Jamie Martines
| Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, 1:27 p.m.
Mark McClafferty with Frank J. Zottola Construction, attempts to remove a section of pipe at the home of George Wanner, 58, of Perry North (shown top right) Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. Frank J. Zottola Construction, Inc. was work contracted by PWSA dig up service lines of homes to see whether they are made of lead.
Mark McClafferty with Frank J. Zottola Construction, attempts to remove a section of pipe at the home of George Wanner, 58, of Perry North (shown top right) Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. Frank J. Zottola Construction, Inc. was work contracted by PWSA dig up service lines of homes to see whether they are made of lead.

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Reporter Dillon Carr visited the Monroeville-based Spectrum Charter School last week to check out the school's annual Holiday Shop. Students used mock cash to purchase donated gifts for themselves, family and friends.

Principal Jenni Schurr said the program helps students spread holiday cheer to their families and friends. The program also teaches banking, saving and what to expect on a paycheck — skills that transfer to life outside of school, Schurr said.


Pittsburgh's water has a lead problem. The city's youngest residents are especially vulnerable to the neurotoxin, which can damage the brain and lead to development, learning, hearing and speech problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Unlike three Midwest cities — Cincinnati; Flint, Mich.; Green Bay, Wis. — Pittsburgh wasn't prioritizing homes where young children and pregnant women live while replacing water service lines containing lead.

Tribune-Review Reporter Theresa Clift wrote about this in August. This week, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority told Clift it will start using Allegheny County Health Department data to prioritize lead line replacements at homes with children.

Here's what Clift has to say about reporting on the city's water and how issues like lead in the water impact the children who live here.

Q. So what's the problem? Why does this matter?

A. The science exists — we know for a fact that any level of lead is unsafe to the developing brain. But it's not always mentioned at pediatrician offices. Many moms tell me they had to request a lead blood test, though the county's new legislation that goes into effect Jan. 1 should help with that. Mothers who are pregnant or have babies or toddlers need to be especially aware of the dangers of lead in water, paint and soil.

RELATED: Allegheny County Council approves lead testing requirement for children

Q. Could other places, other than homes, be impacted too? What about schools?

A. Lead lines are mostly a problem for houses. Larger buildings, like schools, do not have lead lines. They could, however, have lead plumbing and fixtures, such as water fountains.

RELATED: Despite greater scrutiny, depth of schools' lead problem unclear

RELATED: Lead levels unknown at many Pennsylvania schools

Q. What made PWSA decide to start following the lead of cities like Cincinnati or Flint?

A. Some point after our story ran, the Health Department officials agreed to give the data on new births to PWSA. They are not giving them exact addresses. So while a step in the right direction, it's unclear exactly how much it will help.

RELATED: Flint water crisis leaves long-term impact on children's health, CNN

RELATED: What Cincinnati is doing about lead in the water,

Q. What's the most surprising thing you've learned while covering PWSA?

A. One time I went out to parks looking for families to talk to for my stories. Virtually every family I talked to that had small children said their lines are made of lead or they did not know what their lines are made of. Very few were filtering the water they use for cooking or drinking. That's a huge problem. Just because the water isn't discolored or smelly like in Flint, doesn't mean it's lead-free.

Many people have been left confused by mixed messages from officials. Many parents think that if they get their water tested and it's below 15 parts per billion, it's okay to drink. That's not necessarily the case, as tests can be wrong, and levels below 15 can still be dangerous.

Others think that because PWSA's lead level it submits to the EPA has been decreasing slightly every six months since summer of 2016 (with a lot of media coverage), it means the lead in their water must be going down. But that's not the case, as even PWSA's interim executive director told me in September. Only a small number of homes are sampled every six months, and since the lead in Pittsburgh comes from the pipes, not the water supply, it varies greatly from house to house.

RELATED: Are lead levels in Pittsburgh drinking water really going down?

Q. What can families with young children do if they're worried about lead in their drinking water?

A. Even families who are not PWSA customers could have lead lines. If families know that part of their line is made of lead, or are unsure what their line is made of, they should filter all water used for cooking and drinking. This is especially true if the families have children under age 6 or pregnant women.

Not all filters get rid of lead, so check the brand. Pur and ZeroWater are two brands that usually do. For a coupon for a ZeroWater pitcher, visit their website. It's important to replace the filter as directed. Women for a Healthy Environment is also giving away lead-filtering pitchers. That organization can be reached at 412-404-2872 and

Follow the TribLIVE Education Team on Twitter:

• Emily Balser, Valley News Dispatch: @emilybalser

• Deb Erdley, Greensburg: @deberdley_trib

• Natasha Lindstrom, Pittsburgh: @NewsNatasha

• Jamie Martines, Greensburg: @Jamie_Martines

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@, 724-850 -2867 or vi a Twitter @Jamie _Martines.

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