Getting the Lead out of our Water: What will it Take?

Posted by Eva Green on

All Chicago Public Schools are now being tested after high levels of lead were found in the drinking water at one Southside school.  For years public officials have said that Chicago’s drinking water is safe.  But, the recent discovery here--combined with the contamination scandal in Flint Michigan--have raised new concerns about the safety of our drinking water. 

The elevated lead levels at Tanner Elementary were found during a pilot testing program involving 32 Chicago Public Schools. Tanner was the only one that exceeded US Environmental Protection Agency standards of 15 parts per billion.  Lead levels as high as 114 parts per billion was found in one of the school’s drinking fountains, says Chicago Public School CEO Forrest Claypool.

“We (tested) 32 schools and found one school where there’s an issue…so we believe it’s isolated but again out of an abundance of caution we are going to do every single faucet…every single water outlet, and we’re going do it on an expedited basis,” Claypool says.

6 other schools tested positive for lead

CPS Lead Testing Schools.png


All six schools tested below the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. Still--the EPA maintains that no amount of lead in drinking water is safe. 

Lola Arnold, whose twin grandsons attend Tanner elementary, is frightened. “What if they are testing positive for lead? What do we do as parents, you’re making our children sick,” Arnold says.

In addition to testing all 660 city schools, public health officials are beginning to check for lead at homes on the South and West sides. Now, city officials acknowledge, the water department routinely tests only the same 50 homes every three years – and half of those residences are owned by water department employees.

Attorney Elizabeth Fegan has filed a class action lawsuit against the city over its handling of the lead issue. “By using employees to do the water testing, they’re flouting the rules," Fegan says.  "They’re deceiving residents about whether there truly is a problem in the city’s water,” she says.

Pipes on ground in neighborhood.png In 2012, Mayor Emanuel launched a program to replace the city’s aging water mains which included 800 miles of pipes, many more than 100 years old. The mains are usually made of cast iron, running down the middle of residential streets.  The mains connect with lead service lines feeding into individual homes. Until 1986, the city required that those service lines be made of lead.

Fegan agrees the infrastructure--such as this water main project on Olive Street in the Andersonville neighborhood--needs updating. But, she says, problems occur when the water department cuts those lead service lines and then reattaches them to the new water mains.

 “When it does that it’s breaking into those lead service lines and causing lead, fragments, to enter the water system and enter our homes,” Fegan says.  

The Department of Water Management advises homeowners to flush their plumbing for at least five minutes to remove sediment, rust and lead after a new water main is installed. Fegan’s class action law suit claims the city is not doing enough to protect residents from lead.

 “The purpose the law suit is to seek medical monitoring, or blood lead testing for folks that have lived on streets where water main replacements had been done. As well as to require the city to change those lead service pipes to copper piping,” Fegan says.

That would cost millions of dollars since about 80 percent of the water service lines in Chicago are lead.

Jardine Filtration Plant.pngJardine Water Purification

City officials maintain the water treated at the massive Jardine filtration plant next to Navy Pier is safe because a corrosive chemical is added to the water. That chemical sticks to metal, coating the inside of the pipe and preventing lead from leaching into the water. 

For young children in particular, lead is highly toxic. The EPA says even low levels can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, hearing loss, and anemia. 

Harmful effects of lead.png

Henry Henderson, Midwest Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council says lead poisoning has devastating long term effects. 

“Lack of performance in school, violence in the streets, all these things which are significant problems for our urban environment, education, violence are triggered by lead poisoning,” Henderson says.   

High levels of lead have also been found across Illinois including in downstate Galesburg which is getting help from the state to replace all of that town’s lead service lines. 

In the Chicago region, Berwyn, Forest View, York Township, Barrington, Volo, Marengo and Richmond have all exceeded EPA standards at least twice since 2004.  

Homeowners concerned about lead in their drinking water can do something about it by installing filters like a Reverse Osmosis System under their sink.  It virtually eliminates any trace of lead though costs about $1,000 dollars.

Reverse Osmosis System filter.pngReverse Osmosis filtering

Matt Schroll is the Plumbing and Sewer Manager at ABC Plumbing in northwest suburban Arlington Heights.

“There’s a lot of possibility of lead in the water. Not only from the system side of it, meaning the Chicago or Arlington Heights whatever city you’re in side of it, but internally in the house,” Schroll says.  

For example, any faucet made before 2014 can have up to eight percent lead in it. And faucets made before 1986 could contain as much as 25 percent lead.  Schroll tells his customers to run the tap water each day for five or six minutes when they get up in the morning to flush the lead out.

“What happens is when water sits it starts to pick up the minerals around it and those minerals then are susceptible to be in the human body,” he says.  

Back on Olive Street in Andersonville, Lee Robbins who has lived on the street for 25-years says replacing the water mains without replacing the lead service lines doesn’t make much sense. 

“It’s like when you take a shower and put on dirty clothes, well you’re putting clean lines over there but not over here and you run it back through the dirty pipes before it gets to my kitchen faucet or bathroom.” 

Chicago residents concerned about the water coming out of their tap can get it tested for free by calling 311.