Several young children reached their hands into a tank of water at an early learning center called Jeremiah’s Place in Larimer Tuesday morning and pulled out garbage so that the fish bobbing around on the surface could thrive. 

The trash was, in truth, nothing but wooden Popsicle sticks, and the fish were plastic. But the kids had fun — there was a lot of splashing. And because Jeremiah’s Place has been tested for lead and certified as safe, parents could rest assured their children were playing in a healthy environment.

That’s a reality not all families share.

In fact, the hazards of lead was an issue then being discussed by several adults gathered nearby. They’d arrived at Jeremiah’s Place to hear an announcement: The nonprofit organization Women for Healthy Environment has received a $190,940 grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to educate Pittsburgh residents about the sources of lead exposure, the ways in which lead impacts children’s health, and to provide solutions to reduce that exposure.

“Lead is a silent and potent hazard,” said U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, who represents the state’s 12th District and who announced the grant. “We know that it’s been lurking in our houses and schools and playgrounds for far too long.”

Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, announces a nearly $200,000 grant to combat lead poisoning during a news conference at Jeremiah’s Place emergency early learning center in Larimer. At right is Tammy Aupperle, executive director of Jeremiah’s Place. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The dangers of lead have long been known, but the issue exploded into the public consciousness in 2015, when about 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan, learned they’d been exposed to unsafe levels of lead after the city changed the source of its water. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint in early 2016.

Lead causes damage to the brain and nervous system, according to the CDC. It slows growth and development, results in learning and behavior problems, and affects speech and hearing.

Especially vulnerable are children of color and those who live in low-income communities. In older houses, water often runs through lead water lines, and lead-based paint remains on walls.

There is no safe level of lead, said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, D-Plum, executive director of WHE and a member of Allegheny County Council, representing District 8. It’s found in homes, schools and early learning centers, where young children spend their days. It’s in the paint, dust, soil and water. The good news, she added: Lead is “a very preventable hazard.”

The CDC grant, she said, “will give us an opportunity to be in communities, talking to parents, informing them of strategies they can take, the simple steps and measures they can take, to get the lead out. That is what our primary purpose is — looking at primary prevention strategies.”

Then, community members and parents can themselves become advocates and “be the champions in their communities,” Naccarati-Chapkis said.

WHE will hire a public health educator dedicated to lead education and awareness in Allegheny County, she added.

Lead has been detected in 80% of Allegheny County’s water systems, Lee said, and in 36 Western Pennsylvania school districts.

“While this federal funding is a step in the right direction, our work is not done,” she said. “We must ensure that every child is protected from dangers of lead. Lead has been detected …. The urgency of the issue can’t be overstated.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at