May 9, 2023 - News

Illinois may harbor second-worst lead problem in U.S.

Illustration of pipes in the shape of a p and a b

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Lead removal experts have long believed Illinois had the nation's biggest network of lead water lines.

Reality check: Illinois Environmental Council's Iyana Simba and others find that ranking dubious. Simba tells Axios there are hundreds of thousands of lines categorized as "unknown," many of which are probably made of lead.

Backstory: Chicago building code required all single-family homes and small apartment buildings to install lead lines until they were outlawed nationally in 1986.

  • The Chicago Plumbers Union, whose members were licensed to install lead, lobbied to keep requiring the toxic material through the mid '80s — long after its dangers were known.
  • Ironically, members of that same union stand to benefit greatly from hundreds of millions of federal dollars already pouring into the state for removals.

Flashback: While a 1986 federal rule required all future water pipes to be "lead free," that definition still allowed up to 8% lead in pipes.

  • It wasn't until 2014 that the law restricted the allowable percentage to 0.25%. Concerns about pipes installed after 1986 recently prompted Illinois to expand testing to newer schools, where elevated lead levels have also been detected.

What to do: The city advises all residents with lead lines to test their water, filter their water, and flush their taps for five minutes every morning before drinking it.


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