What’s in Your Drinking Water?

In 2015, when Virginia Tech revealed that over 40 percent of homes in Flint, Michigan had unsafely elevated levels of lead in the water supply, many people – while sympathetic – felt thankful that such a danger to their health wasn’t in their own pipes. Most people understood and shared the frustration of the voices of Flint’s most vulnerable residents, who had to beg and plead to get even a response from officials, let alone assurance that the situation was being handled. But many were also relieved that the issue was somewhere else.

Unfortunately, that safety is mostly an illusion. According to research by U.S.A. Today, thousands of communities all across the country have alarming levels of lead contamination in their water. Countless homes in areas with older infrastructures use aging lead water service lines, and any sort of construction or environmental changes can shed the protective barriers on those lines and send lead particles cascading out of the faucet.

Pittsburgh is one of these communities. Residents throughout the city and in the surrounding suburbs live in homes serviced by lines sometimes more than a century old. As if to add insult to injury, one Pittsburgh blood test company recently revealed that results from their lead level blood tests could be inaccurate, meaning hundreds of thousands of results could be affected.

How Pittsburgh Got as Bad as Flint

Like Flint, Michigan and many other cities with long-winded histories, Pittsburgh once thought it would be a great idea to carry water to residents and businesses using a system of lead pipes. Unlike most other materials, lead resisted pinhole leaks, and its soft, malleable forms could be made into a variety of shapes to create the most efficient delivery system possible.

The only problem was that, near the beginning of the 20th century, researchers discovered lead was poisoning us. Many pipes built already had protective coatings to prevent corrosion, but the wrong mixture of water could break down that coating and cause lead to begin leaching through the water lines at unsafe levels.

That scenario is exactly what happened when the city of Flint switched its main water source to the acidic water of the Flint River in 2014. It may also be exactly what happened when Veolia, interim managers for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), allegedly switched to a cheaper, less-effective water treatment additive that could have caused lead service lines to begin leaching lead into the water supply once more.

Tests conducted in summer 2016 confirmed that 17 percent of homes exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion. CBS Pittsburgh reports that around 20,000 Pittsburgh residences have lead service lines and anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of those lines may be leaching unsafe levels of lead. That comes to around 6,000 homes that may be affected.

Replacing these lines is a long and laborious process, one that may take the PWSA more than six years to complete. Since residents are responsible for changing out lines on their own private property, the actual process of removing all lead service lines could likely take much longer. In the meantime, the PWSA’s solution includes complimentary water tap filters, water pitcher filters and water quality testing.

Bad Blood Brews in the Iron City Because of One Pittsburgh Blood Test Company

Pittsburgh residents worried about lead contamination in their homes’ water supply can seek comfort in water quality assessments, but what about lead that’s already in the body? Worrying about this issue, many residents have turned to blood tests that can measure the level of lead particles in their system. The tests are especially important in young children, who tend to have the most severe health complications resulting from lead poisoning as they grow and develop.

The only problem is that some of these tests, potentially thousands, are wrong. Magellan, the testing company in charge of the tests, admitted that this might be the case just a few weeks ago.

Most modern blood contaminant tests use a small drop of blood pricked from a finger or heel and are considered acceptably accurate. In addition to these prick-based testing methods, Magellan was using an older blood test drawn from veins. The FDA later revealed that many of these venous-based tests – with names that include LeadCare, LeadCare II, LeadCare Plus and LeadCare Ultra – could be inaccurate. These inaccuracies could date back as far as 2014.

Anyone who received a venous-based test from Magellan may now have to re-submit and hope for the best. Those whose tests were funded by Medicaid will have complementary retesting, but those who went through their insurer will have to find out from their insurance companies if the retest is covered.

And in the meantime, the residents of Pittsburgh, Flint and other communities in all 50 states may take a closer look at their drinking water and wonder what lurks inside the glass. Napoli Shkolnik, PLLC is an expert law firm that represents victims of contaminations.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.