Aug 31, 2018

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WQP Managing Editor Amy McIntosh addresses Chicago's lead contamination concerns

Lead contamination and other water quality concerns in Chicago

I realize this space has been fairly Chicago-focused the past few issues, and I promise I will examine water quality topics in other areas of the country soon. But as a large metropolitan area, Chicago’s water concerns run the gamut from state and national enforcement issues to contamination concerns in homes. And as my hometown, sometimes these issues are right in my backyard. 

In August 2018, community activists in Berwyn and Cicero, Ill., two older suburbs near Chicago, enlisted the help of the Virginia Tech researchers who were part of the studies exposing lead contamination in Flint, Mich., to test their water for lead. More than 100 testing kits were distributed, and the Chicago Tribune reported that in 11 of the 17 homes where samples had been analyzed, lead concentrations in the first draw were higher than 5 ppb—the U.S. FDA’s bottled water maximum lead level. Four of the 17 homes had at least one sample with lead levels exceeding 40 ppb, and one sample in Cicero tested above 140 ppb. 

Like the city of Chicago, these two cities receive water sourced and treated from Lake Michigan. But as most people know by now, the lead problem comes from in the pipes, not the plants. Residents of Chicago and its suburbs have been consistently reassured by officials that their tap water is safe, but stories like these indicate there might be more to worry about than people think. 

I don’t live in one of the cities mentioned in this study, but I do live in an older neighborhood in the city of Chicago, so this story piqued my curiosity about my own service lines. I did some fruitless Googling, and wasn’t able to find when my apartment building was built, but by the looks of it I think it was well before the Lead & Copper Rule required the city to stop installing lead service lines in 1986. After attending a particularly emotional panel discussion on lead in Chicago and Flint last year, I immediately went home and purchased a pitcher that is NSF-certified to remove lead, so I’ve been aware of the risk for a while now. 

In the name of transparency, the city of Chicago offers free water testing kits to all residents. I’ve heard different reports as far as the city’s responsiveness in sending tests and returning results—most people I’ve asked said it takes at least two months to receive a kit, and no one I’ve spoken to has received results yet—but I’ve decided to try for myself to see how it goes. I filled out a cumbersome form on the city’s 311 website, and now I wait. I’ll keep you posted on the process and my results.

About the author

Amy McIntosh | Managing Editor | [email protected]