Chicago is Still Struggling with Lead in the Water

By Joe Crump and Carlos Tenorio

Back in December of 2018, the Chicago Department of Water Management announced a plan to explore lead service line replacements with the engineering firm CDM Smith.

Despite five years of Rahm Emanuel denying the lead service line issue, the problem has arisen once again.

With water meter installment comes the risk of elevated lead levels in the water, due to the possible disturbance of the lead service lines. Though the city does know that it can cause problems with lead, officials state that it can be resolved by flushing water systems by running the water for 3-5 minutes after six hours of non-use.

However, this tactic is not always consistently effective. In some tests, homes were found to have varying levels of lead despite performing this water system flush at varying intervals.

Currently there is a requirement state-wide in Michigan to remove all lead service lines. Similar to what Michigan has done, Madison, Wisconsin has done the same even though it is not required.

Illinois is following a similar path.

“We had expected that Illinois would adopt a mandatory lead service line replacement program statewide or state law, and the legislation has broad support,” Miguel Del Toral, EPA’s Region 5 Regulations Manager of Ground and Drinking Water, said.

The entrance to the federal building in downtown Chicago which houses the EPA offices. Photo by: Carlos Tenorio

However, the state government has not been able to follow through and set the action into motion yet.

“It did not come up or it was not brought up for a vote in this latest budget cycle because they did not have a funding mechanism,” Del Toral said.

The cost for replacing the pipes in Chicago alone is roughly estimated to be at least over $1 billion, according to Del Toral.

“The Illinois Municipal League and the Illinois Environmental Council are currently actively working on trying to come up with a funding mechanism, and so we hope that if they are able to work that out, that bill would be introduced in sometime next year, probably spring or so,” Del Toral said. “If they can come up with a funding mechanism, then it would be a requirement statewide.”

Until then, the cost of replacing these lead service lines, which is estimated to be at least $10,000, is up to individual homeowners. This leaves communities who cannot afford it more at risk.

The city is not the only player involved in lead service line replacement, however. Non-profit organizations, such as Elevate Energy, are working with individuals and childcare providers to assist with mitigating elevated lead levels.

“We’ve actually been working with childcare providers over the past two years to help them address lead and drinking water issues,” Caroline Pakenham, a Water Program Manager at Elevate Energy, said.

The Elevate Energy office, located at 322 S Green St. Photo By: Carlos Tenorio

Two years ago, the state of Illinois passed legislation requiring communities to inventory their lead service lines to see what material they’re made out of. This also requires schools and childcare facilities to test their drinking water for lead.

“When those new rules came out, there weren’t really a lot of resources to help childcare providers understand how to test and mitigate sources of lead,” Pakenham said. “What we did is we stepped in, we were able to secure some private funding to help reimburse home based childcare providers in the Chicago area for their testing costs, and also provide them with access to short term mitigation strategies to tackle lead and drinking water.”

The lead level requirement for these facilities is lower than the standard 15 parts per billion in standard households.

“If they find that they have lead in their drinking water at 2.01 parts per billion or higher then they do need to get the lead in their water below that level,” Pakenham said.

Timeline: a brief overview of the history of lead piping and the lead issue in Chicago and the country as a whole.

Lead and Health

The presence of lead in drinking water poses a threat to public health.

“The most important effects of lead poisoning are the effects on the brain,” Dr. Mark Mycyk, a specialist in lead toxicology at Cook County Health, said. “These are neurocognitive effects. So we know from decades and decades of research and lead poisoning, that exposure to lead does result in some damage to the brain.”

Long term, low-level exposure to lead can also cause damage to the brain, particularly in children.

“Some of those findings are very subtle, and that does not get picked up for years and years and years,” Mycyk said. “That’s why children whose brains are still developing are often the most vulnerable when it comes to exposure.”

There is no “safe” level of lead in the human body- any amount can cause harm.

“The lead has no function no benefit to the body. So one can argue that any measurement of lead in the body is bad,” Mycyk said.

When lead comes into the body it is absorbed as if it were calcium, which puts those with poor nutrition even further at risk.

“If you have a good nutritional diet, which includes enough dairy and calcium, the amount of lead that is absorbed into the body is actually less,” Del Toral said. “So nutrition matters.”

When it comes to treating lead poisoning or elevated lead levels, the primary treatment is to remove patients’ contact with the lead source, according to Mycyk.

History of the Lead Pipe in Chicago

Ever since water pipes were placed throughout the city of Chicago, and across the nation, lead pipes were considered the best choice. Lead seemed to be the most obvious mechanical choice, and as it was much sturdier and “safe”, but the health issues were ignored.

At first, wood and iron were being used for the pipelines, but these materials could not hold up. It was discovered that these materials leaked and corroded much faster, causing the switch over to lead, which was initially considered “safe.”

“They looked at microbial safety, the primary thing they were concerned about, and it made sense because there were people dying all over the place from Typhoid, Cholera and so forth. So, a lot of times when they talked about safe water, it was primarily microbial,” Del Toral said.

Since the technology was not there at the time they saw lead piping as the solution. It was also considered a win because no one was dying from Cholera or Typhoid.

For many years water main lines were from lead. Many states stopped using lead pipes as soon as the early 1900s, as negative health effects were discovered in the late 1800s.

However, Chicago did not stop installing lead pipes until 1986 when Congress amended the Safe Water Drinking Act, officially banning the practice.

As decades have passed, city officials have known that the lead piping was a public health hazard. As a short-term fix, they decided to add anti-corroding chemicals to the municipal water supply.

Changes to lead piping should not be made without testing to make sure the water is safe. An example of this is what happened in University Park.

University Park was using well water, and residents complained because it was high alkalinity water and because the water was hard. With so many complaints, Aqua Illinois bought University Park and decided to switch their water supply to the Kankakee water system.

With this switch came multiple problems, such as lead falling off of the pipes and getting into the water. Therefore the levels of lead skyrocketed in University Park. It is absolutely vital for the public’s safety to always test the water.

“In other words, you don’t experiment on the public. You go and you do that bench testing, pilot studies, offsite in a lab somewhere,” Del Toral said.

For future reference, if you or someone you know has any issues with water in terms of its safety, you can always call the city of Chicago to have it tested. By calling the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 or visiting you can have your water tested by a state certified laboratory.

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