For years, we’ve known that Chicago’s lead water pipes are a looming public health disaster, but a Guardian investigation last month shows just how bad things are. Much of the city’s water is delivered via lead service lines, pipes that were made with lead a hundred years ago. Lead is a known neurotoxin that can create learning and behavioral difficulties in children and reproductive problems in adults. For decades, the City has placed the responsibility of replacing lead lines on property owners, but in 2020, Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled a plan for the City to replace the pipes over the course of the next few decades at an estimated cost of $8.5 billion. The plan called for replacing 400-800 pipes a year, yet as of last month, only 180 of the 400,000 lines have been replaced. The City has also offered free testing kits to anyone who requests one, allowing residents to measure the concentrations of lead in their tap water.
It’s the results of these tests, some 24,000 in total, that the Guardian investigated, and their story highlights the need for urgent action, especially in neighborhoods with marginalized populations where lead levels are higher. Concentrations of minerals like lead in water are measured in parts per billion (ppb), and there are different acceptable safety levels depending on who you ask. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the safe limit of lead in tap water at 15 ppb—anything above that is dangerous. By that measure, one in twenty, or about five percent of tests exceeded that threshold. But some experts think that limit is too generous—the Food and Drug Administration, for example, sets the limit at 5 ppb in bottled water. By that measure, one third of Chicago lead tests exceeded the limit. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends setting the limit at 1 ppb for children, because their developing brains are particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of lead exposure. By that measure, seventy-one percent of tests had dangerous levels of lead.
But like so many negative outcomes in Chicago, the high concentrations of lead are themselves concentrated in low-income neighborhoods with significant Black and Latinx populations. Four out of the ten zip codes with the highest concentration of lead levels above 15 ppb were on the South Side, and include areas in Bronzeville, East Side, and South Chicago, for example. And while the City has expanded the number of people eligible to get the lead lines on their property replaced for free, saving them up to $30,000, the paperwork and bureaucracy involved is complicated and frustrating, slowing down the process and turning some people away. The results speak for themselves: just 180 lines replaced over several years. Meanwhile, the Guardian compared the efforts of cities like Newark, New Jersey, where crews replaced pipes block by block “at no cost to the homeowner” and used innovative methods that cut down on the time required, allowing them to replace up to 120 lines a day.
Lightfoot has yet to address the investigation or the pressure it places on her administration for the lack of progress in replacing the water lines. In the meantime, residents interested to see the lead levels in their tap water can request a free kit at chicagowaterquality.org and use a water filter at home that removes lead, especially if there are children.