By Andy Sheehan

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Crystal Fortwangler has running water in her Squirrel Hill home, but neither drinks nor cooks with it.

“I don’t use it — except for washing dishes,” she said.

Instead, she’s been using only bottled water ever since a letter from the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority saying her water is contaminated with lead.

At 22 parts per billion, her tap water tested well in excess of the 15 parts that federal environmental regulators have determined to be an unacceptable level. It’s terrifying news for a single mother of 9-year-old Ruby.

“My first reaction as a parent was my daughter has been exposed to high levels of lead. We drink it. I cooked with it all the time,” she said.

Crystal would come to learn that the source of the contamination is a lead service line that carries water from the main line in the street into her home.

Crystal’s also learned that if she wants to have someone tunnel under her front yard and replace that line, she’s on her own. No one stands ready to help her foot the bill, which could run upwards of $5,000.

“I can’t do that. I would have to get some assistance in order to do that. there’s just no way I can afford it,” she said.

She’s certainly not alone.

Pittsburgh is full of old houses and between 20 and 30 percent of the housing stock has lead service lines. To date, few homeowners are aware that they have them, let alone spending the money to replace them.

PWSA will replace about one-third of the lead line from their main line to the edge of the private property. However, the homeowner is responsible to complete the work.

Not only are they expensive, jobs like these are labor intensive and time consuming. If 20 to 30 percent of the houses in Pittsburgh have lead service lines, it’s going to take more than a generation to replace them all.

The job of ridding the city of lead service line is even more daunting. Right now, PWSA clerical workers are combing through old paper records trying to determine the exact address of each lead service line in the city.

Some of the records date back to 1915.

The goal is to provide the public with a digital database to see if your home has a lead service line. PWSA is also offering free testing to determine whether you’re getting an elevated reading for lead.

PWSA does recommend some steps to reduce the lead.

Run your water for 15 to 30 seconds before drinking it and use cold water in preparing food.

They also warn that boiling water will not rid it of the lead.

Lastly, the authority said you should consider buying a water filter, but offers no financial help in the most effective solution remedy – replacing your lead service line.

Interim Director Bernard Lindstrom said the PWSA can’t burden ratepayers who don’t have lead service lines to a fund an assistance program for those that do.

But, if this is a case of public health emergency shouldn’t some government agency be stepping up to help?

“I think ultimately we need to get to the point of the optimal solution and that is remove  the lead lines in the  home and the lines adjacent to  the home in the  water system,”  Lindstrom said.

Advocates like Myron Arnowitt of Clean Water Action say it’s time someone stepped up.

“A lot of homeowners aren’t going to have the money to be able to deal with this problem. It’s incumbent on the city, the health department and PWSA to figure out a solution so we’re not exposing kids to lead like what happened in Flint or Washington, D.C.,” Arnowitt said.

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