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Pollutants that harm Pittsburgh’s rivers

By Lauryn Nania

Pittsburgh is prominently known for its abundance of bridges built across the three rivers that surround the city. From a distance, these waters accent Pittsburgh with a unique, urban beauty. However, with a closer look, numerous types of pollutants such as lead and plastic have tarnished the waters. 

Lead 

In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Lead and Copper Rule that states if a water system contains more than a certain amount of lead or copper, the public must become aware. The maximum amount of lead before a mandatory statement is to be released is 15 ppb while copper is 1.3 ppm. 

Pittsburgh faced a water crisis in 2016 when its water systems reached over the legal lead limit. According to data from Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), in early July 2016, lead levels were at 14.8 ppb. This allowed PWSA to withhold the lead level information. However, results later in the month revealed that from 100 sites, lead contamination exceeded over the 15 ppb limit. Seventeen percent of the 100 sites tested contained between 16 ppb and 75 ppb of lead. PWSA releases water quality reports every year, most recently from 2018. Between the months of January through June 2018, lead levels were recorded at 15 ppb. Between the months of July through December 2018, the levels remained constant at 15 ppb, reaching the EPA’s lead limit.

The primary issues that arise from lead contaminating water systems are the health issues. According to the EPA, lead contamination can affect the health quality of everyone: children, pregnant women and adults. 

Even low levels of lead that appear in water systems consumed by children can result in behavior and learning issues, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. Serious effects of lead consumption can arise in pregnant women and their developing fetuses, such as reduced growth and premature birth. Adults can also be negatively affected due to possible results of increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems. 

Plastic

Allegheny CleanWays is an organization that partners with community groups and volunteers to remove dumps and debris from vacant lots, greenways, streets and riverbanks. According to the Allegheny CleanWays’ website, since the start of the organization in 2000, they have removed over five million pounds of debris, almost four thousand tires and almost 200,000 pounds of metals and recyclables from these areas. 

The organization took the collected loads of debris packed into dumpsters to the Pittsburgh Zoo parking lot to hold a trash audit at the end of Oct. 2019. From there, the organization members and volunteers sorted the trash into different categories such as single-use plastics, tires, clothing, etc. to collect final results. 

During the months of April through October 2019, Allegheny CleanWays and its volunteers boarded a pontoon boat to remove debris that litter the Allegheny County rivers, such as plastic and tires that wash to the shore. 

At a recent audit held in October, Hannah Samuels, Water-based and Education Program Coordinator at Allegheny CleanWays, discussed the most common type of trash polluting Pittsburgh rivers.

“If you take a look at the trash that is going to be pulled from the rivers today, it’s going to be a lot of single-use water bottles, chip bags — things that float, but mainly plastic,” Samuels said. 

Samuels explained how land-discovered litter can ultimately harm surrounding waters. 

“Right now we’re here and we’re [thinking], ‘How can this affect our water?’” Samuels said. “Since we’re in a watershed, anything that we remove helps our watershed be more healthy, which helps our rivers. The litter we’re picking up today, it most likely would have ended up in our rivers through our storm drain systems, so it’s all about diversion.”

If plastics are not collected from waters, they eventually break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics. Allegheny CleanWays sends samples of water from Pittsburgh rivers to Duquesne University to be tested for microplastic contamination. 

Myrna Newman, Executive Director of Allegheny CleanWays, discussed the concerns that arise with microplastic contamination and why it’s crucial to test water samples.

“Studies have shown that the oceans and fish are ingesting microplastics, and our water is becoming contaminated,” Newman said. “We get our drinking water from [Pittsburgh] rivers, so does that mean then we’re also ingesting plastics?”

Check out the rest of the efforts from Chris Rolinson’s Multiplatform Magazine Reporting class at https://www.pollutedpittsburgh.com/water

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