What Officials Are(n’t) Doing About Chicago’s Lead Pipes

Chicago Lead Pipes Thumbnail
Bill Healy / WBEZ
Chicago Lead Pipes Thumbnail
Bill Healy / WBEZ

What Officials Are(n’t) Doing About Chicago’s Lead Pipes

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Editor’s Note: This version of the story contains added information on the city’s water treatment plan. Also, Mayoral candidate Ja’Mal Green has also presented a plan to address the lead problem in Chicago’s water. Green’s proposal includes providing filtration systems to households with high lead levels in their water, expedited lead service line replacements in schools, daycares, hospitals and parks and the creation of a fund to help homeowners pay for up to 65 percent of their lead service line replacement costs. Also, in this story we refer to Chicago having the most lead service lines in the country. This number refers to cities that have actually counted their service lines. Some cities have not tracked this number.

Over the past three years, Chicagoans have been deluged with a stream of bad news about neurotoxic, brain-damaging lead in their water.

And Curious City has been taking on questions about it for a couple of years now, starting with a resident who wanted to know why the Chicago Park District had been running so many lakefront fountains continuously. The bottom line was that a good deal of the water coursing through the district’s outdoor fountains was contaminated with enough lead to pose health risks.

A lot has changed since then (including the fact that a good number of the fountains have been turned off for those same health reasons).

Early exposure to lead in children can cause life-long neurological and behavioral problems, and health authorities stress that no amount of lead is safe.

But listeners continue to reach out to us with follow-up questions. Earlier this spring, questioner Mike Stevens asked, essentially, what it would take to solve Chicago’s lead issues in the parks, in the schools and beyond. A big factor in that equation involves government officials. So here’s a look at how federal, state, and local officials are addressing lead issues in Chicago’s water. 

What’s the deal with Chicago’s lead pipe problem and how did it start?

Think of the vast network of plumbing beneath Chicago like a road system. A city-owned and -operated water main functions like a highway that carries water to neighborhoods. To get to your house, it then exits onto a sidestreet — a resident-owned service line that carries water to your faucet.

In Chicago, most of these service lines are made of lead.

Like a lot of U.S. cities, Chicago started using lead service lines more than a century ago. But unlike most American cities, Chicago actually mandated the use of lead service lines until 1986, when the federal government banned further installation.

Even though City Hall once required lead service lines, it now requires that residents pay out of their own pockets if they want to replace them. This could cost between $2,500 and $8,000 per home. The Chicago Department of Water Management estimates the number of lead service lines in the city at 360,000 — by far the most in the country.

Experts say that most lead in our water is picked up during its journey through our plumbing and lead lines on the way to the tap. A recent Tribune analysis of city data estimated that 70 percent of homes tested have some lead in their water, and about a third have levels higher than allowed in bottled water. Furthermore, an EPA study shows that Chicago’s water main construction projects rattle the lead pipes, causing particles of lead to flow into home water supplies.

What are government officials doing about Chicago’s lead pipes?

The city tests for lead-contaminated water — but that doesn’t mean they have to replace lead pipes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says municipalities must monitor lead levels in home water. Towns and cities are required to test tap water in a certain number of homes and take action if more than 10 percent of the tested homes register high lead levels of more than 15 parts per billion. But Chicago complies with the rule by testing just 50 homes every three years to represent the whole city. An EPA study found that this does not accurately reflect the amount of lead in Chicago’s water.

What’s more, the federal rule does not require testing in daycare centers, schools, or parks — unless they get water from independent water systems like wells. But a new state law will soon require testing in daycares and elementary schools.

For City Hall’s part, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration maintains Chicago does not have a problem with lead in its water. That’s even though its own data from voluntary home tests show high lead water levels in about a third of homes tested, and Chicago and Illinois consistently rank high in childhood lead poisoning.

“I think we have a very good program to prevent lead from leaching into the water,” said Chicago Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner. “Chicago has the best drinking water and the cleanest drinking water that is ever to be found.”

The program he is referring to adds a chemical called orthophosphate to the water, which ideally creates a protective coating inside the pipes to prevent lead from leaching into the water. But Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards, whose team exposed the Flint, Michigan water crisis, says that Chicago doesn’t add nearly enough of the chemical to protect the public. For instance, Flint now treats its pipes with nearly six times as much orthophosphate as Chicago does.  

And when it comes to children with elevated levels of lead in their blood, the city’s primary focus is on reducing their exposure to lead paint, not lead-contaminated water, says Chicago Public Health Commissioner Julie Morita.

City officials emphasize that they offer free lead testing kits to residents and will inspect homes with high lead levels. They also put a chemical in the pipes meant to prevent lead from leaching into the water, and they say they’re studying whether water main construction kicks up lead levels in residential service lines.

But when asked whether Emanuel’s administration would commit to helping residents actually remove their lead service lines, Conner said, “The commitment is to keep studying with public health and other officials to see where we need to go with this thing.”

What are other politicians proposing?

Ahead of next year’s city elections, anything can become political fodder, and lead is no different.

Last month, mayoral challenger and former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas accused Emanuel of inaction on the lead issue. He proposed his own three-tiered solution that includes providing water filters to residents and setting up a fund to help subsidize filtration and lead service line removal.

Earlier this spring, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) called for public hearings on Chicago’s lead issues, but his resolution was shut down by Emanuel’s City Council floor leader. Waguespack says he was told by the administration and water officials to withhold the resolution because the matter was better discussed behind closed doors.

“I think people have a right to know and we have a right to have these hearings,” Waguespack tells WBEZ. “Protecting the children in this city is what we are supposed do, and so if the mayor is sitting here hiding this because he has an election coming up out, it’s not just sad, that’s appalling.”

When asked why the Water Department opposes public hearings, Conner suggested they could create “a sense of mass hysteria” if people aren’t educated “in the correct way and right setting” about how the city handles lead.

How are other cities dealing with lead pipes?

Dozens of cities across the country, including Madison, Wisconsin, are already replacing lead service lines, and many cities offer financial help for residents to pay for the work. Chicago has committed to no such program.

Last month, Michigan passed a state law requiring all of its municipalities to come up with lead service line replacement plans that can be completed in the next 20 years. But a similar bill pushed by Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) this year fizzled after getting opposition from the Chicago officials and other opponents. Steans says she will revise the language and reintroduce it in the next legislative session. 

How can Chicagoans reduce exposure to lead in water?

EPA drinking water quality specialist Miguel del Toral recommends that anyone with a lead service line should use a water filter immediately. There are several filters specifically designed to reduce or remove lead from water, but only when used properly.

The EPA has several recommendations for concerned Chicagoans, such as flushing faucets for a few minutes before using water and cooking and drinking only cold water.

It also recommends removing and replacing lead service lines.

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