(Pittsburgh) April 24, 2017 Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said today that her office will conduct an expedited performance audit of the Allegheny County Health Department to assess how it has monitored elevated blood lead levels in children and evaluated their risk from lead-contaminated water.
Wagner said she is concerned with both a lack of meaningful data from the Department, and with definitive statements by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Department officials drawn from the limited data the Department has released.
“Data is not partisan; data is not political; data and facts are the minimum that we must provide to our residents,” Wagner said. “And when we are facing a crisis in Pittsburgh with dangerous lead levels in 25 percent or more of our homes, we must ensure that government is speaking truthfully and that statements are grounded in evidence.”
"The negative health effects of lead exposure are real, and with many in Pittsburgh at increased risk, at minimum we must have accurate data to know what type of responses from the public health community and government are necessary, and if current efforts are adequate," said Stephen Marziale, a community water activist fighting for immediate action to reduce lead exposure.
A recent news report at PublicSource.org showed that the percentage of Pittsburgh children testing with elevated blood lead levels rose from 2013 to 2015, coinciding with the period when the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) made an unauthorized switch of corrosion control chemicals which is believed to have increased lead levels in the water of many households.
Another recent report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review showed that the Health Department cites fewer landlords for lead hazards than benchmark counties, and has not routinely penalized landlords for failing to remediate these hazards.
In December 2016, Wagner issued an audit of the Health Department’s oversight of public drinking water systems in the County, and characterized its findings as “a disturbing pattern of unwillingness to gather data and to define openly and publicly the risk posed by lead [water] lines…”
Although the Health Department has acknowledged that its blood lead testing results are “done somewhat randomly… and likely undercount the problem,” in recent weeks, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker have cited this sparse and questionable data to claim that the public should not be so concerned by elevated lead levels in drinking water.
While Peduto, for instance, cited Dr. Hacker when stating that “the amount of children in the City of Pittsburgh being poisoned by lead in our water is zero,” Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech University–a nationally recognized expert on lead in water–told PublicSource that “I can tell you that given the levels of lead in Pittsburgh’s water, that statement defies the laws of chemistry and biology and physics. You can’t have children drinking water with that much lead in it and not show significant elevations of blood lead.”
Wagner indicated that her audit seeks to ensure that County residents know exactly what the Health Department is and is not doing in compiling and analyzing its data on blood lead levels. It will also compare County records to data maintained and reported by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
“The old saying goes, ‘You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.’ Pittsburgh residents deserve facts as they continue to face lead levels in water higher than Flint–the highest among large water systems in the U.S.,” Wagner said.
“The accuracy and integrity of data is of paramount importance. We will work to ensure the veracity of the data our County government is providing as we also continue to advocate for immediate and long overdue action to address Pittsburgh’s lead crisis.”
Wagner also attended the Allegheny County Health Department’s press conference today and said its message reinforced the necessity and urgency of her audit. She said she would request that Health Department leadership meet with her by Friday to begin the audit.
“That many Pittsburgh residents have been left to drink lead-poisoned water for three years now as the City has failed to take meaningful action is something I never could have imagined would occur in our City,” Wagner said. “As a mother, I fear for my kids, but even more for the many in our community who are still today unaware that their water is not safe to drink. This audit is one aspect of my resolve to do everything in my power to end this atrocity.”