The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform hosted a panel discussion Wednesday in Chicago on “the importance of keeping government accountable for clean and safe water.” Progress Illinois provides highlights from the talk.
The city of Chicago is doing the bare minimum when it comes to testing drinking water for lead, according to experts who called for greater drinking water safeguards in the city and elsewhere in Illinois.
The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) hosted an event in Chicago Wednesday to discuss “the importance of keeping government accountable for clean and safe water.”
Panelists included legal and medical experts as well as Chicago journalists who have reported extensively on local lead-contaminated water.
Almost 80 percent of Chicago properties are attached to lead service lines, which were connected to many homes built before the mid-1980s. Other potential sources of lead in the drinking water are lead solder or fixtures, said Jennifer Van Wie, assistant attorney general in the environmental bureau of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
“Really, until you test, you don’t know” whether drinking water is contaminated, she said. “The recommendation is people should be testing.”
The city of Chicago tests the water for lead in only 50 homes every three years — a testing regimen allowed under federal regulations. Most of the tested homes are located on Chicago’s far Northwest and Southwest Sides, areas where lead poisoning is generally not a problem, experts said.
“The parts of the city where kids are being poisoned, they’re not testing the water,” said Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne.
Of the 50 Chicago homes tested in 2015, only three were on streets where the water main had been replaced in the last five years, according to Hawthorne’s reporting. Water main replacement can result in high levels of lead leaching into drinking water.
Additionally, nearly all of the homes tested in the city were owned either by a retiree or current employee of the Chicago Water Management Department.
“They’re not looking in the places where they’re going to find lead,” Hawthorne stressed. “The records strongly suggest that the city has gone for several years and tried as much as it can in different ways that are perfectly legal, but perfectly non-informative, to make it look like everything’s just fine, when it might not be.”
Other major cities have adopted much more robust water testing methods than Chicago, according to the panelists.
For example, Los Angeles tests twice as many homes as Chicago every three years, and New York City, which does the testing annually, sampled 350 taps last year, said Jack Lockhart, ICPR’s data and research analyst.
Chicago and other big cities are required to take corrective action only if 10 percent of tested homes exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “action level” for lead of 15 parts per billion.
“The city of Chicago can say, like our former water commissioner said as recently as earlier this year, that Chicago drinking water is safe and meets all EPA standards,” Hawthorne said. “That’s true, but the standards don’t mean that the water is safe.”
Experts said there is no safe level of lead, which is known to adversely affect neurodevelopment.
“Lead doesn’t have any positive role within the body,” said Dr. Ernest Chiodo, the former medical director of the city of Detroit.
Nancy Loeb, founding director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, was also on the panel.
“We should be doing a lot more” to protect the drinking water supply from lead contamination, she said.
“The U.S. EPA needs to change this rule,” Loeb added, referring to the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, which sets the regulations on lead and copper in drinking water.
The city of Chicago recently launched a new initiative for free residential water testing. Now, Chicagoans can call 311 to request a free water quality test for their home. Test results are being posted online.
But panelists cited anecdotal accounts suggesting that the program has much room for improvement.
Back in May, Monica Eng was one of 10 WBEZ reporters who called 311 to request water testing for their homes. Eng said she is the only one from the group who has thus far received a testing kit and sent it back to the city.
“This is more than two months later, I still have no idea what the water is like in my home,” she said. “I don’t know how other citizens are doing it. There are a few hundred results up. (The city) told me they’ve gotten thousands of requests, but I think this is getting caught in bureaucratic red tape.”
The lead water poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan brought the problem to the national spotlight and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district is now testing school drinking water for lead contamination. So far, at least 99 Chicago public schools have tested positive for elevated levels of the highly toxic metal.
There is no federal law requiring that drinking water in schools be tested for lead. As such, state legislation is seeking to fill that regulatory hole. The bill, SB 550, passed the Illinois Senate back in May, but has yet to be approved in the House.
Van Wie said the legislation would require water sampling in schools, with a focus on those constructed before 1987 and attended by students in pre-K through fifth grade. Schools would have to promptly notify parents if any sample exceeds the EPA’s action level for lead of 15 parts per billion.
The goal is to get the measure passed during the fall veto session, Van Wie said.
ICPR’s Board Chair Susan Garrett said her organization plans to take “a leadership role in putting pressure on the House to call the bill, either in veto session or in the spring session.”