How dangerous is Pittsburgh’s lead problem? The data is contradictory and the damage could be worse than officials say.

(Photo by Michael Podger/Unsplash)

By now, we know quite a bit about Pittsburgh’s lead in water crisis. But there are things that remain a mystery. We know about the 2014 switch from soda ash to caustic soda that caused lead levels to spike, but we don’t know who ordered the switch in corrosion control. We know there is a lawsuit between the City of Pittsburgh and the former manager of its water supply, Veolia North America, in which the city is alleging mismanagement, but the argument is taking place behind the closed doors of an independent arbitrator somewhere in Pittsburgh. We know that the authority has been in financial trouble for years and the city wants to restructure it, but it’s too early to say what the restructured water authority would look like.
We still don’t have an answer to the most critical question: What health effects could have come from the illegal switch to cheaper corrosion control treatment? Caustic soda was used in Pittsburgh’s water supply from April 2014 to January 2016 despite a longstanding requirement by the state Department of Environmental Protection to use soda ash.
Veolia managed daily operations at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] from summer 2012 through the end of 2015. The switch is believed to have caused lead to flake more rapidly from aging lead service lines across the city and is overwhelmingly seen as the culprit for recent lead level increases in city tap water. PWSA estimates that 20 to 25 percent of city homes have lead service lines.
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