Chicago residents are being exposed to lead through their tap water.
One in 20 tap water tests in Chicago have found lead levels at or above U.S. government limits, according to an analysis of city’s water data conducted by the Guardian. The levels were about a third more lead than allowed in bottled water, according to the Guardian.
The analysis found that 1,000 households out of the 24,000 tests had lead levels well above the country’s safety standards. One household in particular, in the south of Chicago, had levels at 1,100 parts per billion (ppb). The limit proposed by the EPA is only 15 ppb. “EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood,” the agency wrote in an online water safety guide.
Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin, and even low levels of exposure are cause for concern. There are serious consequences to exposure, and it’s especially harmful to infants and children. It damages the development of the brain and central nervous system, and long-term exposure can result in “intellectual disability and behavioral disorders,” according to the World Health Organization. Despite this knowledge, the city has been slow to get rid of the source of the lead, which are the almost half a million lead lines that run throughout Chicago.
As of this month, under 0.5% of the more than 400,000 lead service lines in the city have been replaced, WTTW Chicago reported. This is more than two years after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a plan to replace them, according to WTTW Chicago. But even in 2020, Chicago officials admitted that replacing them in the lead lines would take a long time, decades even. Officials say the extended timeline is due to the sheer number of lead lines and the billions of dollars needed to deal with the problem.
The Guardian’s analysis also points to another troubling reality in Chicago— environmental racism. Most of the households with elevated lead in their water are in majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Communities of color, but particularly Black communities, are more likely to be exposed to lead in their lifetime compared to their white counterparts. It’s a toxic legacy, decades in the making for vulnerable communities throughout the country. It’s one of the many factors that contribute to educational disparities for children of color, but especially for Black children.
Chicago is far from the first U.S. city to struggle with ensuring clean, lead-free water. A lead crisis in Flint, Michigan began in April 2014, when city officials approved a plan to draw water for city residents from the Flint River, which has been heavily polluted for decades. The city had previously used water from the treated Lake Huron near Detroit. The switch saved the city about $5 million, but at the cost of public health. Residents began to notice that the water coming out of their faucets was yellow or brown. Blood tests revealed elevated lead levels in children’s blood.
Recently, people in Jackson, Mississippi have dirty water coming out of the tap after city-wide outages late last month. And residents in both Baltimore and Mansfield, Massachusetts were told to boil their water earlier this month, after officials found E. coli in the city’s water supply.