How Politics Created Chicago’s Lead Water Problem | WBEZ
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Curious City

How Political Clout And Union Power Created Chicago’s Lead Water Problem

Curious City has answered a number of questions about the high levels of lead in the water in Chicago’s schools, parks, and homes.

In the process of reporting these stories, we’ve found that the source of the lead in the water is service lines pipes that connect the water main in the street to our faucets. In fact, Chicago has more of these service lines than any other city in the nation that has counted their lead service lines. 

And that’s a problem because exposure to lead can cause health problems, and young children are particularly vulnerable. Among other things, research shows that Chicago kids with even low levels of lead in their blood are 32 percent more likely to fail standardized tests by third grade.

But how did things get so bad? Why did Chicago accumulate and keep so many of these lead water lines while other cities were banning and removing them? That’s what several question askers wanted to know.

The answer has a lot to do with political clout, union might, and decades of mayoral inaction. We go back more than 100 years to illuminate the policies, personalities, and politics that came together to create and keep this toxic legacy in Chicago.  

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

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