Lake Michigan at Chicago

By John Ruberry

Chicago, which is for now America’s third-largest city, has suffered a rough 21st century. It is beset by a declining population, a high murder rate, soaring taxes, poorly-rated bonds, and burdensome public employee pension debt.

Now you can add lead in tap water to Chicago’s problems. Chicago pumps its water from Lake Michigan, which is largely lead free.

From an April Chicago Tribune article:

Amid renewed national attention to the dangers of lead poisoning, hundreds of Chicagoans have taken the city up on its offer of free testing kits to determine if they are drinking tap water contaminated with the brain-damaging metal.

A Tribune analysis of the results shows lead was found in water drawn from nearly 70 percent of the 2,797 homes tested during the past two years. Tap water in 3 of every 10 homes sampled had lead concentrations above 5 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in bottled water by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Alarming amounts of the toxic metal turned up in water samples collected throughout the city, the newspaper’s analysis found, largely because Chicago required the use of lead service lines between street mains and homes until Congress banned the practice in 1986.

It was the lead from service lines in Flint, Michigan that contaminated that troubled city’s drinking water. Service lines are the connecting pipes from water mains to homes, schools, and businesses. Upkeep of them, and their replacement, is the responsibility of the property owner in Chicago. And replacing those service lines isn’t cheap, it will cost a property owner anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000. A lead filter is a cheaper alternative.

The Flint water crisis was brought about when that city, in a cost-saving measure, switched from purchasing its water from Detroit–which gets it from Lake Huron–to the Flint River. Chloride corrosives from the river reacted with the lead in the service lines, putting dangerous amounts of lead into Flint’s drinking water. While the US EPA says no amount of lead is safe, the EPA action level is 15 ppb, which many Flint homes exceeded.

But there is no federal standard for tap water lead levels in regards to individual residences.

The Tribune article cited here discovered that some Chicago homes tested had lead tap water with amounts slightly above 15 ppb.

Chicago is currently replacing 900 miles of water mains, and such work can increase lead levels in drinking water, the EPA says. And that might be the cause of the high lead content in Chicago’s water.

Excessive lead levels are particularly damaging to children as it can lead to developmental problems. In fact, dangerous lead exposures among Chicago’s children could be a factor in the city’s high rate of violent crime.

The Chicago Park District may soon shut off nearly half of its water fountains on its crowded Lakefront Path because of the high lead content in its water. For twenty years I swigged that water when I was training for marathons.

Chicago’s two-term mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who is up for reelection next year, has been mostly quiet about the lead issue.

I’ll leave the final words for Randy Conner, the city’s Water Management Commissioner, “Chicago has the best drinking water and the cleanest drinking water that is ever to be found.”

Pass me the bottled water as I praise the day I moved to the suburbs.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit from Morton Grove, Illinois.