Report Finds Elevated Lead Levels in Chicago Drinking Water

The Chicago Tribune analysis finds 70% of 2,797 Chicago homes with lead contamination in drinking water

Chicago Tribune analysis find elevated lead in drinking water

A recent analysis by The Chicago Tribune found that nearly 70% of 2,797 homes across Chicago over the past two years found lead contamination in drinking water. Out of these samples, three out of every 10 homes had lead concentrations above 5 ppb. These results are drawn from an expansion of the Department of Water Management’s (DWM) lead testing program. In 2016, the department expanded a free program providing lead test kits with three samples each to Chicago residents, ultimately, providing 2,797 lead kits to the public.

While the analysis reported that 9% of the homes tested had lead levels above the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) bottled water standard of 5 ppb, the DWM noted that Chicago water standards comply with the U.S. EPA standard, which is higher at 15 ppb.

“Only 5.1% of kits had one or more samples with a lead concentration result greater or equal to the EPA Action Level of 15 ppb,” a DWM statement said. “When this occurs, DWM works with those residents to verify the results and inspect the home’s plumbing and wiring to better evaluate possible sources.” 

Chicago continued to incorporate lead service lines until Congress banned the practice in 1986, but the DWM assures the public they practice corrosion control measures. Chicago has been installing new water mains across the city, which the Tribune found to jostle the protective coating on lead service lines and may contribute to recent uptake of lead contamination in drinking water. The report points to cities such as Boston, Denver, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for their efforts to replace lead service lines, and highlights Chicago’s subsequent lack thereof.

While the initial results seem concerning, and the Tribune certainly raises some valid points when it comes to Chicago’s lack of lead service pipe replacement plan, other experts in the field are less concerned. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer and professor at Virginia Tech as well as one of the key minds behind uncovering the Flint water crisis, told CNN that the results were comparable to other cities.

“We’ve done testing in New Orleans and frankly all around the country and honestly the Chicago results look pretty typical for a city with modern corrosion control and lead service lines,” Edwards said. 

The news comes in light of Michigan’s own lead contamination woes as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder recently ended free bottled water distribution to Flint residents, amid considerable public backlash.

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