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Park Officials Find High Lead Levels In Hundreds Of Drinking Fountains

Recently released city data reveals that 43 percent of Chicago parks have at least one drinking fountain or sink with high levels of toxic lead. One fountain in Grant Park had levels 80 times higher than the federal limit.

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Newly released city data shows that hundreds of Chicago park fountains contain high levels of lead.

Monica Eng

More than 43 percent of Chicago parks have at least one drinking fountain or sink with water exceeding federal limits (15 parts per billion) for lead, according to data recently released by the Chicago Park District.

The results — quietly posted on the Chicago Park District website last week — detail the results of 2,435 tests at 479 parks. More than 200 of those parks had at least one fountain showing elevated lead levels in the water, but many had several.

Some of the highest lead levels were found in outdoor fountains in Grant Park downtown and Avalon Park on the South Side. An outdoor fountain in Grant Park showed lead levels of 1,200 ppb while two in Avalon Park checked in at 1,200 and 1,800 ppb — more than 100 times the federal standard.

Park District officials released a statement that said:

“In response to the testing, 14 of 544 indoor drinking water sources (fountains and sinks) and 445 of 1,891 outdoor fountains were disabled, as they were found to have levels higher than the EPA drinking water standard of 15 ppb. These fountains will undergo further testing, and will be removed, repaired or replaced, as necessary.”

The testing came in the wake of WBEZ inquiries about the existence of park district lead tests last spring. Initially, the park district would not say whether it planned to test its fountains before 40,000 Chicago children started park district day camp last July. But later in the summer, after a pilot showed elevated levels at a few parks, the Park District announced it would test all fountains.

The results come out as the district is in the process of turning off all outdoor fountains for the season. Why didn’t the district start and complete the testing earlier in the year, when it could have helped more people, especially children attending summer camp?

“We reacted as quickly as we could and obviously kids are very important to us,” Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Mike Kelly said. “(Chicago Public Schools) was going through the testing and we immediately started our testing. I’m proud of our efforts on this -- we moved very fast on 2,500 drinking fountains throughout the city.”

On Tuesday, Jen Walling of the Illinois Environmental Council said she was “alarmed” by the high levels found in the fountains and said she was also concerned parents were not contacted as they were when CPS found high levels of lead in its schools during ongoing tests this year.

“They should have notified parents quickly right after the testing was happening,” she said. “I am also concerned that state law doesn’t require any local government that takes care of our children to tell parents when they’ve found an issue. You’d have to FOIA most results from schools and park districts. So at least they are testing and at least they released the results but the parents should have been notified right away.”

Kelly said the district will be sending out an “email blast” this week to families who use the park. Chicago Health Commissioner Julie Morita said concerned parents can take their children to the doctor.

“If there are people who feel they have been exposed to the water fountains that were affected on a regular basis, they can contact their healthcare provider to see if the health-care provider can test them for lead,” she said.

WBEZ started looking at park district water in response to a question from Curious City listener Svitlana Popyk, who asked “Where can I get lead stats on Chicago lake path drinking water fountains?”

Find a WBEZ spreadsheet of all test results here.

Monica Eng is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her at @monicaeng.

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