More Than Just Water: Lead in the Pittsburgh Environment

Issues about lead exposure has recently come to the forefront of the media’s attention, particularly with the recent news of high levels of lead in Flint Michigan’s drinking water. The site was also the stage for a past presidential debate where lead contamination was a major focus of the discussions. One candidate mentioned lead not only being in water, but also being present in soil and many homes across the country. The comment was especially pertinent considering that a significant amount of children have higher levels of lead exposure in Allegheny County than in Flint.

Sources of Exposure

Although water was the main source of exposure for children in Flint, the issue in the Pittsburgh area is being caused by lead-based paint. Even though this type of paint has been banned since 1978, many houses built before this time likely have not had the substance removed. The alarming part of this fact is that approximately half of the homes in Allegheny County were built before 1950 when lead-based paint was the common choice for decoration.


However, lead paint does not pose an immediate threat if it is well cared for because lead must enter the body before it affects health. The issue arises when dust forms from the paint. That can occur from any contact or friction against the coating. Dust that is created from this may be invisible to the human eye but can easily be ingested, exposing people to lead. The risks of this occurring escalates with renovation projects in contaminated homes.

Risks and Health Effects

Everyone is susceptible to lead exposure, but children face the highest risk of the element accumulating in the their bodies. Children are capable of absorbing more lead because of their growing bodies, and they are extremely sensitive to lead’s effects on the nervous system and brain function. Additionally, they face increased chances of exposure by touching the ground, or objects on the ground, where dust is present and then touching their mouths, thus ingesting the lead.  Lead can have effects on all organ functions, and extreme exposure has resulted in seizures and death. Children under the age of 6 have the highest risk of developing learning disabilities, slower growth, and hearing problems due to lead exposure.


Proper maintenance and cleaning of homes can be the best way to prevent exposure of lead. Areas where friction and contact is likely to occur, like doors and windows, should be the focus for cleaning because this is where the dust occurs the most. It is also wise to encourage children to frequently wash their hands and to regularly wash toys and places where they play.  However, these measures may not prevent all risks of exposure. Certified inspectors and risk assessors should be consulted to determine levels of lead in paint and the chances of being exposed to the toxin. Additionally, if a professional is hired to do renovations, sufficient background checks should be done to ensure that the contractor has proper certification to handle lead contaminated homes. Lead poses a serious danger for a substantial proportion of the population in the Pittsburgh area, but with awareness and prevention, the chances of exposure can be decreased significantly.




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