On Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the city halted its water meter program after high levels of lead were found in some homes.
While Mayor Lightfoot insisted Chicago’s drinking water is safe, she urged homeowners to register for a free water testing kit or water filter by calling 311 or visiting chicagowaterquality.org.
Morning Shift talks to experts about the dangers of lead exposure and how to protect your family.
Do Chicago residents need to have their water tested?
Dr. Susan Buchanan: I think the immediate answer probably is no, mainly because testing is difficult and it relies on different protocols that involve flushing. And what we’ve found is that there’s a huge variability in the results of the tests … and your neighbor may have completely different levels.
I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re having work on your street, on the water main, on the sewer main or having these water meters installed, that you’re going to have some elevated lead levels if you have lead service lines.
Jenn White: How do residents — if they’re not getting a line change, if they’re very nervous about this — what’s the best way forward?
Dr. Matt Davis: When a family asks me, ‘Should I test the water in my home?’ I say, ‘If you’re concerned about it please do go ahead and get it tested’ because that peace of mind may help. But as Dr. Buchanan said, sometimes even a normal test may not tell the whole story.
So there’s also the part of this where we can encourage families to take appropriate and common-sense steps to help protect your family from not only lead but other possible exposures that might come from a water system, even if it’s well-treated.
Dr. Buchanan: I think it’s really important to note that any physician can draw a blood lead level. So if you’re concerned you have lead from any source, you should have your children tested for lead.
The children in Chicago should all be receiving routine blood lead levels. And that’s a problem because a lot of doctors either don’t know it or they’re not following the CDC guidelines or these state-level guidelines on who and how often children should be tested. So children should start being tested around 9 months and should be tested at least three times before age 2 and annually up to age 6.
On possible health effects from lead exposure
Dr. Davis: When lead enters the body, it goes to particular areas, and the nervous system is one of the areas that can be most affected because there’s difficulty, then, getting the lead out of the brain and also other parts of the nervous system — the nerves themselves.
Lead also gets into bone, because it’s similar to calcium in terms of how the body takes it up. And that’s another challenge because when lead is in bone, even if the child were to have a situation where they have less lead exposure, they might still have lead in their system because the bone is continually turning over, or evolving, as the child grows.
The most important part here, whenever we’re talking about lead exposure, is that water is one source, but it’s probably only a minor source of lead exposure for children. And just as we have an old water supply in Chicago, we have an old housing stock here. And that old housing stock is often a source of exposure to lead paint, whether those are lead paint chips or dust that includes lead. And the dust is inside our homes, it’s also outside in the dirt.
And so, when kids are playing outside, when kids are playing inside, it can be a good common-sense effort to use a moist cloth to wipe up internal surfaces that can help pick up that dust that may include lead. And then if you’re coming in from outside, try to prevent tracking that dirt inside the house by taking your shoes off by the entrance.
On health outcomes from lead exposure
Dr. Buchanan: The health outcomes we see at these relatively low levels are subtle, but they are provable by scientific studies of large groups of children. And what we see is that the average IQ in a group of children that has been lead-poisoned is slightly lower than the average IQ in a group of children that was not lead-poisoned … there have been some behavioral changes, general neural development. But like I said, they can be very subtle on an individual basis…
I do think it’s also important to mention that when we see the real obvious health effects, it’s usually in workers that have been exposed to high levels, or children who are eating large quantities of paint chips.
White: And in that higher level of lead exposure, what do we see?
Dr. Buchanan: Probably loss of IQ points. And those children, when they have elevated lead levels, their elevated lead levels are still probably two or three times lower than ours were when we were growing up. So I spend some of my time trying to have parents not panic too much … my lead level was probably three to four to five times what the typical kid’s lead level is today.
On ways to offset lead exposure
Dr. Davis: If you’re having water lead work in your house or in your neighborhood, it’s a good idea to use some filters at particular specifications that we know that remove lead from the water. What’s also helpful is to use an aerator on your faucet, one of those things that you screw on the actual tip of the faucet, so that it catches any particulars that may include lead.
Whenever you may have a very young child at home, especially a child for whom you’re mixing up formula from powder, it’s very important to use filtered water or bottled water for those children. That’s because when we mix up formula, we’re mixing up something that’s 80% water in its final constitution and that is a particularly large source of potential lead exposure — if we know there’s been recent work on the lead service lines or if we’re worried about some other lead exposure in the home.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Stephanie Kim. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.
GUESTS: Dr. Susan Buchanan, clinical associate professor and associate director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago
Dr. Matt Davis, head of general pediatrics and Chief of Community Health Transformation at Lurie Children’s Hospital
LEARN MORE: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says city won’t install more water meters till solution is found for lead problem (Chicago Tribune 7/9/19)
Lightfoot pauses water meter installations after city finds spikes of brain-damaging lead in homes (Chicago Tribune 7/9/19)
Lightfoot pauses water meter installations after more tests show homes with elevated lead levels (Chicago Sun-Times 7/9/19)