Jun 21, 2022 - News

High lead levels in Chicago home water

Glass with water and a lead pipe
A piece of lead pipe removed from a home in Gary, Indiana. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

Water in more than a third of the homes tested by the city shows high levels of lead.

Why it matters: The EPA says no level of lead in drinking water is safe. But according to an Axios analysis of nearly 25,000 test results from spring 2018 to spring 2022, 82% of tested homes had more than 1 part per billion (pbb) of lead.

  • Almost 35% had at least one sample with more than 5 ppb, the legal threshold for lead in bottled water.
  • More than a dozen homes had readings over 50 ppb, with one as high as 6,000 ppb.

Context: About 400,000 Chicago homes are connected to the water main using lead pipes because city rules required all houses and small apartments to install them until 1986 — when they were finally outlawed nationally.

  • Lead can damage children's brains and contribute to heart disease in adults.
  • Illinois children have shown some of the highest blood lead levels in the nation.

Flashback: The Chicago Tribune analyzed home tests in 2018 and found similar results.

What they're saying: "There are many possible reasons for high test results, such as debris collecting in aerators and extended vacancy before testing," Department of Water Management spokesperson Megan Vidis tells Axios.

State of play: Municipal water supplies are under the jurisdiction of the EPA and are held to a standard of 15 ppb, not the FDA's bottled-water standard of 5 ppb. So Chicago officials only act after levels reach 15 ppb.

  • After that, the water department "sends out a team comprised of a plumber, electrician and sanitary engineer to help determine the cause and make customized mitigation recommendations," Vidis says.

What's next: Mayor Lori Lightfoot has agreed to remove all lead lines by 2077, and to release a plan for it by 2027.

Reality check: The removal track record is dismal. In fall 2020, Chicago pledged to use $15 million in grants to remove 600 lead lines in low-income homes per year.

Data: Chicago Department of Water Management; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios
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