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17 Percent Of Homes Where City Crews Installed Water Meters Have Elevated Lead Levels

City officials first learned of the issue nearly six months ago.

The lead testing kit Chicago residents can request.
City of Chicago

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CHICAGO — City officials found elevated levels of lead in 17 percent of metered homes they tested — acknowledging they first learned of the issue nearly six months ago.

Approximately 165,000 homes in Chicago have meters installed. Of the 296 homes where the water was tested before and after the installation of the meters, 51 had lead levels above the 15 parts per billion action level set by the Environmental Protection Agency, said Adam Collins, a spokesman for Emanuel.

Officials did not say how far above the 15 parts per billion measurement those homes’ water contained.

Homes with meters will have their water tested and will be offered water filters if lead is found, Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita told reporters at City Hall. Those filter sets cost $60 each.

When extrapolated to all metered homes, the initial results of the study — presented to city officials in June 2018 — mean 28,000 Chicago homes could have water tainted with elevated lead levels. Lead is a neurotoxin and can be especially damaging to children and pregnant women.

While there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, the EPA requires water agencies to act to reduce lead when more than 10 percent of tap water samples exceed the lead action level of 15 parts per billion. Chicago has met that standard annually based on a sample of homes tested by officials, a point Emanuel has repeated.

“There is no public health crisis,” Morita said, adding that lead levels in children have not risen. “People should not be panicked.”

Despite the findings, city crews will continue to install meters in homes where requested. Since 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aldermen have pushed the meter program as a cost-saving measure that would also help conserve water.

Department of Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner was pressed by reporters on whether that continued push is appropriate, since officials have linked the meter installation with elevated levels of lead.

“We’re still installing meters because the data that we have is showing a slight increase,” Conner said.

Morita and could not answer questions about how long the elevated level of lead remains in the water of homes where a water meter has been installed.

The homes where water tested positive for elevated levels of lead are not geographically concentrated in any one part of the city, Conner said.

The Tribune reported in 2013 that EPA researchers found the installation of meters and the replacement of water mains be linked to high amounts of the toxin, because lead pipes that are disturbed by street or plumbing work can release the material into the water supply.

The number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood has declined during the past 20 years to less than 1 percent, Morita said. The city’s water also meets or exceeds all state and federal standards for lead, and passed its U.S. EPA review last month, officials said.

No Chicago child who lives in a home where elevated levels of lead have been found in the water has subsequently tested positive for elevated levels of lead, Morita said.

“We still have more work to do,” Morita said.

Homes where water is discovered to have elevated levels of lead will be investigated by city crews to determine the precise cause of the lead, whether it be the meter, service lines or another source, Conner said.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said the city must be more transparent about the issue of lead in the city’s drinking water supplies. He and other aldermen introduced a proposal to fund the replacement of the lead service lines by hiking taxes on the sale of properties worth more than $750,000. That idea was rejected Wednesday by Emanuel.

“Let’s just remove the lead water out of the system,” Villegas said. “Let’s stop burying our heads in the sand.”

If a faucet has gone unused for more than six hours, Conner recommended that Chicago residents let the water run from the tap before using it for drinking or cooking.

“There is no evidence to suggest the water main replacement program is producing large changes in lead concentrations in water,” Conner said. “There is no need to alter the water main capital improvement program.”

However, the city has hired CDM Smith to outline a “multibillion dollar program” to replace the lead service lines that connect most Chicago homes to the city’s water system.

The study, expected to cost $750,000 and be completed in spring 2019, will give Chicagoans “confidence they deserve in their water,” Conner said.

For nearly 100 years, city law required that lead pipes be used to funnel water to single-family homes and small apartment buildings. Federal law banned the use of lead pipes in 1986, when it was discovered that they could cause brain-damaging toxins to leach into the water. The city considers water delivery pipes – or service lines – to be the responsibility of the property owner.

The Tribune reported in April of 2018 that the potentially brain-damaging metal had been found in water from nearly 70 percent of the 2,797 homes city officials tested during 2016 and 2017. The report created a political firestorm that Chicago’s elected officials have since been reluctant to address.

Adding to the issue is the fact that thousands of residents who have requested a lead testing kit have not received one from the city. The lead issue has touched not only homeowners, but Chicago Public Schools students and parks facilities.

Health and government officials are especially concerned with children drinking lead-tainted water, as they’re more susceptible to its effects. Lead levels that might not harm adults can hinder mental and physical development in children, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, if a home tests positive for more than 15 parts per billion of lead, city water officials “will contact the homeowner to discuss the results and schedule a time to resample the water and inspect the home’s plumbing and electrical wiring to better evaluate possible causes,” according to the city’s website.

Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes that contain lead corrode.

Mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas were quick to weigh in on the revelation.

“Once again, the Emanuel administration has shown it doesn’t care about the needs of everyday Chicagoans,” Lightfoot said in a release. “As a mother and a homeowner, it is completely outrageous to me that this administration did nothing to inform us of unsafe lead levels in drinking water.

“Furthermore, this administration has ignored countless opportunities to transparently discuss the problem—when discovering elevated lead levels in June, or long before, such as when beginning to replace aged water mains in 2011,” Lightfoot said, insisting Chicagoans can’t wait until spring for test results. “Even beyond denying us the opportunity to make key decisions about our health, this failure to act will likely result in multiple lawsuits against the City, meaning taxpayers will have to foot the bill for this crisis multiple times.”

Vallas has likewise sounded the alarm on lead since this summer, and compared the Emanuel administration’s response to that of the government in Flint, Michigan.

“Since June, I have been calling on the city to take more aggressive action to address our lead in the drinking water problem, but the Emanuel Administration has dismissed me as a panic peddler.

“Today’s revelations show an unbelievable level of cynicism by the Emanuel administration that frankly smacks of the cover-up we saw in Flint, Michigan. Just yesterday, Emanuel stated, ‘Chicago’s water is safe’ and ‘meets and exceeds federal EPA standards.’ Chicagoans must know know who knew what and when. I am calling on federal and state environmental regulators, as well as Attorney General Lisa Madigan, to open an investigation and get to the bottom of this matter. The public has every right to know exactly what is in their tap water. This will be a priority from day one of a Vallas Administration.”