Nearly one in five Chicago homes with water meters may have elevated levels of lead in their water.
City officials have known about high levels of lead [measured at higher then 15 parts per billion or three times as much as is allowed in bottled water] in a subset of metered homes since June. But they broke the news to the public and most of the 165,000 homeowners with water meters on Thursday.
The revelation came out during a press conference at City Hall Thursday morning meant to announce a new study to assess the cost of changing out the city’s lead water service lines, which can leach lead into water.
Instead, Water Commissioner Randy Conner and Health Commissioner Julie Morita spent most of the time answering reporters’ questions on how homeowners with water meters should proceed and why the city didn’t notify the public in June.
“Because, at the time, we were still getting the data in and taking a look at it,” Conner said, “myself along with Dr. Morita and the scientists to come up with a decision on how we were going to approach the situation.”
After the press conference, a representative from City Hall called WBEZ to clarify that the testing is ongoing and that, before Friday, they thought that only 11 percent of tested homes registered high lead levels. But results received Friday showed that number jumped to 17.2 percent — or potentially about 28,000 homes with water meters.
The city has encouraged homeowners to install water meters to more accurately measure water usage since 2001. Officials say they’re still not sure why homes with meters have such a high rate of elevated levels of lead.
Conner says that any homeowner whose water has tested above 15 parts per billion for lead or who has had a water meter installed at their home can now request a free “water filter set” from the city. The department says this set will be a water pitcher with six replacement filters designed to reduce lead when used properly. Conner also recommends flushing home water that hasn’t been used for several hours by running water for at least 5 minutes before consuming.
'People should not be panicked'
Despite the surprising numbers of homes with elevated lead levels — more than previous studies have found — Morita repeatedly stressed that there was no reason to worry.
“People should not be panicked,” she said. “That is the critical message. And you can help us by not making it a panic situation.”
Morita also pointed to a chart showing that blood lead levels in Chicago children have steadily declined from 25 percent in the late ‘90s to less than 1 percent today. But according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, Chicago and Illinois still have some of the highest childhood blood levels in the nation, and health officials stress that no level of lead is safe for adults or children.
What’s next? A study of lead lines
After years of resisting lead service line replacement, the city surprised aldermen and advocates by proposing to explore the idea with a feasibility study.
The new study will assess logistics, costs, and the advisability of replacing Chicago’s 360,000 lead service lines, which carry water from water mains to faucets. The $750,000 study has been contracted out to global engineering firm CDM Smith and is expected to be completed by spring 2019, after the mayoral election.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th Ward), has been promoting a real estate tax to fund lead service line replacement. He says the city needs more than a study.
“Instead of conducting a study, let’s put forward a program to remove the lead from the water system and become the world class city that we are,” he said after a press conference. “The simple fact that we have to flush and use filters … I mean, what are we doing here?”
Dozens of cities, including Philadelphia and Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, have already started or finished lead service line replacement.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office, however, has resisted measures to even hold public hearings on Chicago’s lead in water issue. Still, some mayoral candidates, including Paul Vallas and Ja’Mal Green, however, have outlined potential plans to tackle Chicago’s lead in water issue as part of their campaigns.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at email@example.com