Revealed: The 'Shocking' Levels of Toxic Lead in Chicago Tap Water

Erin McCormick, Aliya Uteuova and Taylor Moore / Guardian UK
Revealed: The 'Shocking' Levels of Toxic Lead in Chicago Tap Water Elizabeth Granato, the wife of Illinois state senator Ram Villivalam, with their younger son Lokesh in the kitchen of their home in Chicago, Illinois. (photo: Jamie Kelter Davis/Guardian UK)

Tests performed for thousands of Chicago residents found lead, a neurotoxin, in amounts far exceeding the federal standards

One in 20 tap water tests performed for thousands of Chicago residents found lead, a neurotoxin, at or above US government limits, according to a Guardian analysis of a City of Chicago data trove.

And one-third had more lead than is permitted in bottled water.

This means that out of the 24,000 tests, approximately 1,000 homes had lead exceeding federal standards. Experts and locals say these results raise broader concerns, because there are an estimated 400,000 lead pipes supplying water to homes in the city, and the vast majority were not tested as part of the program.

Moreover, they say the city is not moving fast enough to eliminate the potential danger.

The Guardian worked with water engineer Elin Betanzo – who helped uncover the Flint water crisis that resulted in many, mostly Black residents being poisoned by lead in the Michigan city – to review the results of water tests conducted for Chicago residents between 2016 and 2021. Chicago itself has never released an analysis of the results.

The analysis found that nine of the top 10 zip codes with the largest percentages of high test results were neighborhoods with majorities of Black and Hispanic residents, and there were dozens of homes with shockingly high lead levels. One home, in the majority-Black neighborhood of South Chicago, had lead levels of 1,100 parts per billion (ppb) – 73 times the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit of 15ppb.

“There’s a very clear data set here showing very concerning lead levels in Chicago – and the residents need to have this information,” said Betanzo, the founder of a water engineering firm. “Lead is a potent, irreversible neurotoxin with no safe level of exposure and multigenerational impacts. The time to cut it off is as soon as possible. Foot dragging is helping nobody.”

“This data shows lead well above the action level consistently, at addresses across the city again and again and again, and it’s been sitting here publicly available for years,” said Betanzo. “It’s amazing. It’s shocking,” she added.

Numerous studies have shown that, even at low levels, lead can leave an indelible impact on young children and adults. Once in the blood, lead can cross the blood-brain barrier and affect the nervous system. It has been linked to lower IQ levels, behavioral disorders and worsening performance in reading and math.

In adults, low levels of lead are associated with kidney problems and increasing blood pressure, which can lead to a host of cardiac effects.

Chicago has an estimated 80% of homes with water connections made of the potent toxin, more than any other city in the nation. Yet efforts to get the lead out of the ground and out of people’s drinking water seem to be stalled in bureaucratic gridlock.

In May 2021, Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, condemned previous mayors for “kicking the can down the road” and failing to deal with the urgent need for pipe replacements. Yet, as of this month, only 180 of the city’s almost half-million lead lines have been replaced.

The situation in Chicago is emblematic of an immense national issue. Although the Flint crisis rang alarm bells across the country, estimates say there are some 10m lead pipes still serving US homes – meaning these homes could potentially have unsafe tap water.

There are different standards and opinions about how much lead is tolerable in water, and therefore how provocative these Chicago findings are. Health agencies say no amount of lead is safe, and that even low amounts can cause problems.

But the EPA has an “action level” of 15ppb – meaning that cities are only required to notify the public when at least 10% of a small sample of homes tested are above that amount.

By this measure, Chicago is in compliance.

But this method may miss widescale issues. Flint was also technically in compliance until more detailed testing revealed the extent of its problems. And the EPA itself issued a notice warning Chicago residents that a study found that its method “underestimates” lead levels.

Many experts say the standards should be stricter, and the EPA has agreed it is time to review them. The Food and Drug Administration sets the standard for lead in bottled water at 5ppb – a level that more than a third of Chicago’s tests exceeded.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends setting levels for school drinking fountains of no more than 1ppb, related to the fact that children’s brains are particularly susceptible to lead.

By this measure, 71% of Chicago tests reviewed by the Guardian would not pass.

In a statement to the Guardian, a spokesperson for the Chicago department of water management said the city’s tap water should not be held to the same standards as bottled water, and that the city’s testing method for lead involves deliberately letting the water stand for several hours in the pipes, and is therefore an overestimation. The city also encourages residents with lead lines to flush their water for five minutes every day before consuming it to reduce the chances that they will consume any lead that has accumulated.

“Chicago takes its drinking water quality very seriously,” said the spokesperson, Megan Vidis. “The department of water management (DWM) offers one of the largest free lead testing programs in the world and voluntarily shares the results online to keep residents informed.”

While the raw data of the Chicago tests has been posted on the Chicago department of water management’s website for years, no analysis has been made available to the public.

If the same results were extrapolated to all the homes served by the nearly 400,000 lead lines in Chicago, it’s possible that more than 100,000 homes could have lead levels in their tap water above those allowed for bottled water.

“This is clearly a public health threat of the first order,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, of the water test results. “That’s a lot of people drinking lead-contaminated water.”

Drastic solutions for drastic situations

Several years ago the city started to encourage people to take three samples of their own water and send them into the city for analysis. Those who tested were located all across the city, and ranged from a former daycare worker in the north-west Chicago neighborhood of Belmont Cragin to an electrician on the Southeast Side.

Since the results for the 24,000 test kits were identified by block numbers rather than full addresses, it’s possible that some homes were tested more than once. But there are at least 15,000 distinct block numbers.

The first of the three samples was to be taken after the water had been sitting stagnant in a pipe for at least six hours, the second after the tap had been running for two minutes and the third after five minutes.

The Guardian analysis used the highest of the samples for each test kit. The largest proportion of results at or above 15ppb came after taps had been running for two minutes. And 2% of the samples returned such high results after taps had been running for five minutes.

While homes with high lead test results were widely distributed around residential areas of the city, the areas with the biggest percentages of high lead tests also tended to be working-class neighborhoods with large Black or Latino populations.

For instance, in four zip codes on Chicago’s South Side, eight to 10% of lead tests showed results above the EPA action level. These included Bronzeville, a historic hub of the city’s Black community, and South Chicago and East Side, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods hard-hit by industrial pollution and high rates of respiratory disease.

The 60624 zip code, which encompasses Garfield Park, had 9% of tests above the EPA standard. On the North Side, the more affluent, white neighborhood of Forest Glen also had 9%.

One of the testers was Illinois state senator Ram Villivalam, who represents parts of Chicago’s Northwest Side and neighboring suburbs. In 2018, Villivalam and his wife bought a house constructed in 1958 – their first ever real estate purchase – in the North Mayfair neighborhood to accommodate their growing family. A year later, they discovered during a routine check-up that their toddler’s blood test had lead levels five times higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current acceptable limit.

Doctors told the family the lead levels were high enough to cause global development delays in their son, Rohan, but because his lead poisoning was caught early, they are hopeful that adverse outcomes can be averted. Villivalam says his family had been living with several sources of lead, including a lead water service line and lead paint in his home, as well as some spices his family has typically used, such as turmeric, that may have been contaminated.

To counteract the effects, Villivalam spent about $5,000 to replace lead paint, switched his two sons to nursery water, and gives his affected son an iron supplement. He is unable to afford the $20,000 expense of replacing the pipes, so he uses water filters instead.

“It’s a drastic situation and we need a drastic solution to ensure what happened to my son doesn’t happen to anyone else,” said Villivalam, who introduced legislation this year to inspect all residential buildings built before 1978 for the presence of lead paint and piping. He co-sponsored another law that went into effect in January and will require utilities to remove all lead pipes in the state. But a lack of funding at the city, state and federal levels means its impact has been blunted.

The Guardian shared the findings of its investigation with Villivalam, who called the extent of the lead problem “unacceptable”.

“The reality is we need to have a sense of urgency on this issue … If it can happen to my family, it can happen to any family.”

‘Largest lead testing database’

One of the reasons Chicago ended up with such a dire lead problem was because it kept laws on its books requiring that lead pipes be used to connect homes to the city’s water system until 1986 – decades after most cities had banned them due to lead’s brain-damaging toxicity.

The city water commissioner, Andrea Cheng, testified to Congress in May that “Chicago has one of the largest databases of lead testing in the US, with over 100,000 free lead testing kits mailed out to residents.”

Yet in response to multiple public records requests, the city said it did not have an analysis of the results. An analysis by Chicago Tribune reporters in 2018, when fewer than 3,000 tests had been collected by the city, also showed lead in water in an alarming percentage of Chicago homes tested.

The city said that some high results could have occurred because residents did the testing incorrectly. Officials also said the city’s lead testing program targeted residents who had results above 15ppb with help including filters and home visits from specialists, and puts them on the priority list for pipe replacements if they qualify.

Numerous experts pointed out that the EPA has been promising to revise its standards for over a decade and repeated studies have shown that lead is damaging to health at much lower levels.

“If I had water that had 5ppb of lead, I wouldn’t drink it,” said University of Chicago molecular engineering professor Junhong Chen, a water quality expert, who also reviewed the Guardian’s data. “Based on the data I’m seeing for the last five or six years, this is an alarming situation.”

He recommended the city institute tighter monitoring and encourage residents with lead above 5ppb to use filters, until the service lines themselves can be replaced.

‘Pathetic’ pace of change

Progress toward replacing these pipes has been glacial. In September 2020 the mayor announced plans to replace 650 lead pipes by the end of 2021, and continue increasing the number from there, but so far the city hasn’t come close to hitting that target.

At the hearing, Cheng said that her agency had run into several challenges, including state health codes that require replacing sewer drains at the same time as lead service lines, and a reluctance by some customers to allow the city to do construction on their property . She estimated that the cost of each lead pipe replacement could run as high as $30,000.

At Mayor Lightfoot’s urging, the state has given Chicago 50 years – until the 2070s – to replace its lead service lines.

Olson of the NRDC said the city should follow the model of Newark, New Jersey, where workers went block by block and replaced every lead service line at no cost to the homeowner. By developing efficient methods, including a “trenchless” technique that allows workers to pull new pipes through the same hole used by the old ones, he said Newark has been able to complete up to 120 lead service line replacements a day.

Chicago taking nearly two years to replace 180 lines “is pathetic”, Olson said. “If a city like Newark can replace 120 per day, there is nothing other than lack of will that would prevent Chicago from doing the same thing.”

“It seems like the city doesn’t have the political will to push this program forward,” said Brenda Santoyo, senior policy analyst for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which represents a neighborhood where a high number of the mostly Latino residents have lead service lines. The Guardian’s analysis found that, in Little Village, 4% of tests were above the EPA limit, while 30% were above allowable levels for bottled water.

The city has designed several programs to help low-income residents pay for the part of the work on their private property, and it has recently expanded eligibility for free lead service line replacement. Yet, for those who signed up to receive a free replacement in the past, the wait and the mountain of paperwork has seemed insurmountable.

Giuliana Ramirez has been trying to help her 65-year-old mom get a low-income grant to replace the lead service line in the brick-red workers’ cottage that three generations of her family share on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

After a year of struggling to get all the required paperwork to the city, the family still isn’t sure it will ever happen. The city asked for a multitude of documents to prove income status – including tax returns, pay stubs, social security cards, driver’s licenses and school transcripts for every member of the family, plus mortgages, deeds, insurance declarations and real estate tax bills. Then when Ramirez tried to help her mom load scanned copies of all this paperwork on to the city’s website, the web portal kept crashing.

“I’m not exaggerating; I would say it took us about 12 times,” Ramirez said. “It was just too much stuff.” She said this summer they were still getting notices from the city that more documents were needed, although they are not sure which ones. “It’s really aggravating.”

A planned Chicago program to offer free pipe replacement at homes that serve as daycare facilities has also been slow to get off the ground.

Mari Carmen Macias, a former home daycare provider and a resident of Chicago’s majority-Latino Belmont Cragin neighborhood, worries about all the children that are drinking lead either at their homes or at their daycares in the city. She has become an organizer working with her local union, SEIU, to set up trainings for home daycare providers on how to minimize the risks to children by getting their water tested and using filter pitchers to remove lead.

Macias doesn’t feel like the city is doing enough to get the word out about the danger, as children may be affected without their families ever realizing it.

“I’m going to feel terribly guilty if we don’t do something,” she said. “How many more years, how many more decades, are we going to keep on poisoning our kids?”

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