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As Risks Of Water Meters Became Clearer, City Relaxed Lead Testing Rules

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Jardine Water Purification Plant

The entrance to the Jardine Water Purification Plant on Chicago’s lakefront.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made headlines Tuesday by halting all new water meter installations due to mounting data on high levels of lead in water at some homes that installed them.

The latest figures show 22% of homes had elevated lead in their water after installation.

But as this increasingly troubling data was coming in over the last several months, Department of Water Management officials decided to scale back testing requirements on these at-risk homes. This spring, the department started allowing residents to get their meters installed faster by opting out of testing.

The water department sent this statement to WBEZ explaining the decision:

“We previously required that residents participate in water testing in order to get a meter. However, there is a large number of meter requests and these installations are only able to move forward once the ‘before’ water sample is scheduled and taken. Some residents have recently asked to opt-out of the testing requirement in order to get their meter more quickly.

To accommodate these customer requests, we modified our procedure and will allow residents to receive a meter installation without participating in water testing if they so choose, so long as they sign an informed consent form.”

On Tuesday, Water Commissioner Randy Conner added that, in recent months, the city felt it already had enough participants in the study. Out of the 165,000 homes with water meters in Chicago, the city has tested 510.

City officials said they started doing before-and-after testing of homes with water meters in 2016, and they have been examining the results in batches. Each new round of results has shown higher percentages of affected homes.

Results announced in November 2018 showed 17.1% of homes tested had elevated lead levels after water meter installation. The latest data shows that number has jumped to 22%.

The mayor’s office released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying, “No one who lives at any of the addresses with elevated water lead levels in this study has been found to have an elevated blood lead level.”

This was news to Kyle Hillman, whose Rogers Park home was found with elevated lead levels after water meter installation last year.

When asked if the city had ever gathered blood lead information from his family, he responded by email, “No, nor was it ever requested.”

The city said the Chicago Department of Public Health “automatically receives all human lead testing results from local doctors and laboratories” and found no high blood lead results in this database that matched the affected homes in the study. This tracking method, however, is only effective if everyone in the home has been recently tested for lead and their health care provider submits the result in a diligent and timely manner.

The city does not ask residents to submit their blood test results nor does it ask them to get a blood lead test, which is not part of most routine physicals.

“No one in my house has been tested for years, Hillman said.

Cause of elevations still unknown

On Tuesday, Lightfoot said she wasn’t sure what was causing the spike in lead levels at the homes, but that the city would start reinstalling meters until officials figured it out.

Some experts, including former EPA scientist Elin Betanzo, pointed to a 2013 US EPA study of Chicago showing water infrastructure work, including water meter installation, can cause rising lead levels in homes by disturbing lead in the system.

Others suggest the higher detected levels could be a product of the more comprehensive testing protocols used for the participating metered homes. These tests involve four “before” samples and 15 “after” samples, which may capture a more accurate picture of lead in the home than the one- or three-liter samples taken in more common city tests.

City faces additional lead challenges

Experts say the main source of lead in Chicago’s water comes from its 392,000 lead water service lines that were required in all city homes until 1986. Last November, after years of denying the lines were a problem, the water department announced it had commissioned a report on the potential cost of replacing the lines.

At the time, officials said the results of the study would be released in spring 2019. Now they say the study will be released “when it is completed.”

Earlier this year WBEZ reported on a procedure the water department does called partial lead service line replacement that can spike lead in homes for more than a year without the homeowner knowing. At the time, mayoral candidates Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle vowed they would address this health hazard.

When WBEZ asked water officials on Tuesday if they had stopped doing partial replacements, they simply said, “We have already answered that question.” They offered no more information.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng.

WBEZ’s Alyssa Edes produced this interview for broadcast.

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