What’s the Most Effective Way to Get Lead Out of Your Water?

Filters? Flushing your water line for a few minutes? Or total water line replacement? We dig into the best options for homeowners. (Photo: Molly Sabourin via Flickr)

Every day, multiple times a day, Jesse Perkins runs the water in his kitchen sink for about a minute-and-a-half, until it runs cold — indicating that it’s fresh water from the main in the middle of his street. He does it before he fills up a glass of water or a pot for cooking.

“I even try to flush it before I fill my cat’s dish,” he says, laughing.

LISTEN: Getting Lead Out of Your Home’s Water Supply

Perkins bought his Lawrenceville home in 2013, gutted it and spent three years fixing it up. As part of the renovations, he replaced all of the interior plumbing with PVC pipe and a flexible plastic called PEX. The one bit of plumbing he didn’t replace was the lead service line that carries his water 60 feet from the water main into his house.

Perkins got his water tested for lead through the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) and it came back at 65 parts per billion, more than quadruple the Environmental Protection Agency’s action limit. He attended a community meeting held by PWSA in Lawrenceville in January, where Interim Executive Director Bernard Lindstrom told residents flushing would make their drinking water safe.

“We came here today, we told you what is lead. We told you where it comes from, where it can be found, how you can find it,” Lindstrom said. “We told you how it got here and what’s been going on in the past and what we’re doing right now and into the future. I can only leave you with this right now: Flush your lines. Right now, flush your lines.”

Perkins says he’s followed that advice. “But the fact that it’s coming through that lead line is still troublesome,” he says.

Lawrenceville homeowner Jesse Perkins shows where his lead service line meets the water meter in his basement. Photo: Liz Reid / WESA

Lawrenceville homeowner Jesse Perkins shows where his lead service line meets the water meter in his basement. Photo: Liz Reid / WESA

According to PWSA’s Interim Director of Engineering, Bob Weimar, service lines in Pittsburgh are typically five-eighths to three-quarters of an inch in diameter. If Perkins’ supply line is 60 feet long, it might hold up to one-and-a-half gallons of water. Depending on his faucet and aerator, anywhere between a half-gallon and two gallons of water can flow out of his tap every minute. So that minute-and-a-half of flushing should be long enough to get rid of all the water that has been sitting in the lead service line and bring fresh water from the main for Perkins — and his cat.

But not every Pittsburgher trusts that method.

Emily Drill and Steve Hayashi live in Squirrel Hill with their 3-year-old twins, Amy and Liam. They’ve had their water tested three times since last summer, with results ranging from 22 to 27 parts per billion — even with flushing.

“PWSA has recommended that you flush your line for a minute or so until the water gets cold,” Hayashi says. “I was curious, so I actually ran the faucet, set a timer and even held the thermometer under the faucet.” After about 90 seconds, the water temperature dropped from 67 to 57 degrees. Hayashi collected a sample and sent it to a private lab for analysis. “That too came back at about 23 parts per billion lead,” he says.

Drill says, as a parent, it was a scary realization. “It could have been a couple of years and, you know, it’s just worrying that we could have done damage to them and caused developmental problems without knowing it,” she says.

Some Pittsburgh homeowners found that flushing their water lines for a minute or two wasn’t enough to reduce lead to safe levels. Next steps include water filters certified to remove lead and replacing lead service lines.

Hayashi says as soon as they got their first lead test results in November, he went to Home Depot and bought a faucet-mount Brita filter for about $25. It’s certified to remove lead by NSF, an organization that tests water filters and other products for compliance with safety standards. And Hayashi and Drill instituted a new rule in the house. “The rule we have for our kids is that you’re not allowed to drink from the bathroom sink or the bathtub,” he says. “It’s a little silly.”

Hayashi found out through PWSA that both his portion and the authority’s portion of his house’s service line are lead. In mid-March, he got a letter saying PWSA would be replacing their side of the line within 45 days, and that he would have four weeks after that to replace his side while the ground is open.

Hayashi attributes PWSA’s attention to his own tendency to be a squeaky wheel. “I’ve raised questions and sent emails to PWSA,” he says. “I’m concerned about my neighbors and friends who are blissfully unaware.” Hayashi says he’s been getting quotes from plumbers and expects the project to cost around $4,000.

Jesse Perkins says he also plans to replace his lead service line and that PWSA told him they’ll do their portion of the line at the same time. But he doesn’t know when he’ll actually be able to get around to it.

“I have other things that I need to spend money on right now and I can’t justify taking out a loan to do this,” Perkins says. “Maybe my answer would be different if I had a pregnant partner in the house, or I had small children.”

As for 3-year-old Amy and Liam, their parents took them to get their blood lead levels tested in January. Both came back perfectly normal, but they’re still not allowed to drink the bathtub water.

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This story is part of our series Hidden Poison, a public media partnership of The Allegheny Front, 90.5 WESA News, PublicSource and Keystone Crossroads. Learn more at hiddenpoison.org.