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Curious City

Some Park Drinking Fountains Were Unsafe This Summer

Just days before the end of the official summer park season Chicago Park District officials quietly posted the results of the district’s 2017 drinking fountain lead tests.

Curious City had been asking for this testing data for months, following revelations that the district had shut off seven fountains due to unsafe levels of lead contamination. The data shows that the district reconfigured 190 other fountains to run continuously because they would deliver dangerously high levels of lead if put on push-button control.  

Park officials didn’t answer repeated questions about why they waited nearly five months before informing the public of the full extent of lead contamination found in outdoor park fountains this year.

The data show that lead contamination sometimes hit levels 200 times higher than a federal 15 parts per billion standard that can trigger requirements to cut off the water or treat it. Some of the highest readings were from park fountains in Lincoln Park along the lakefront, Oz Park, Brooks Park, Grant Park, and Burnham Park near the 31st Street Harbor.

The data suggest, though, that the vast majority of park fountains (959) were below federal action limits.

The newly-released data also reveal how the district chose to monitor the lead problem and how that decision could have exposed some fountain-drinkers to water with significant lead contamination.  

The testing procedures suggest park users (including children, a population particularly vulnerable to lead contamination) were allowed to drink from some contaminated fountains before their high lead levels were detected by park officials. Some testing extended into late July and early August — weeks after thousands of children were enrolled in day camp programs.

The district says at the start of 2017, it divided its more than 1,200 outdoor fountains into two groups.

  • The first group had failed lead tests in 2016, by registering 15 parts per billion of lead or more in its water. In the run-up to the 2017 summer park season, the district presumed this first group might also fail lead tests this spring. These fountains were tested and then turned off until their results came back. If initial results suggested the water was safe, the district flushed these fountains for 30 days during which time they were available to the public. If they failed their initial spring 2017 tests, they were flushed for seven days with a box over them to prevent the public from using them, and they were tested again. If they failed their second tests, they were turned off for the season.
  • The other set of fountains were those that passed lead tests in 2016. The district flushed these fountains for a month, but allowed the public to drink from them while test results were pending. Tests revealed, however, that even some of these fountains — presumed to be safe enough to drink during the flushing period — had high lead levels. This was the case with at least 20 district fountains, according to the newly released data. One fountain on the north side of Promontory Point in Burnham Park checked in with 653 ppb of lead, or more than 40 times the federal action level.  

District officials say they will continue testing and updating test results through the fall. The Chicago Park District begins shutting off outdoor drinking fountains in October. It restarts fountains in the spring, aiming to have most outdoor fountains available to the public by Memorial Day.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org. Curious City began investigating this issue after receiving questions about it from listeners including Svitlana Popyk, Tyler Black Christina Ramone and Elana Sitrin.

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