PERRO meeting looks at residential, school lead levels in water supply
March 4, 2017

By Lisa R. Jenkins

In an effort to address concerns about the safety of Chicago’s water supply, the Pilsen Environmental Rights & Reform Organization (PERRO) on Jan. 28 held a meeting at the Lozano Library at 1805 S. Loomis St. to discuss drinking water safety and provide updates on current corrective measures.

PERRO is a grassroots community group consisting of Pilsen residents, formed in 2004 to fight what they claim is a disproportionate amount of pollution throughout the Pilsen neighborhood. PERRO members believe all people have the right to live in clean and healthy environments, no matter their race and social status. Its mission is to spread awareness about the concept of environmental justice and make Pilsen and the city a healthier place to live, work, and raise children.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been investigating alleged lead contamination in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood since 2011, when it became involved with a cleanup at the site of the former Loewenthal Smelter.

Participants at the meeting discussed how construction projects to replace water mains attached to service lines may cause lead particles to fall into a house’s drinking water, possibly for several weeks after the initial disturbance. They also discussed findings that show lead in drinking water in some Chicago Public Schools.

While lead exposure is not healthy for anyone, children are affected most because lead can affect their growth, behavior, and development. If pregnant women are exposed to lead, it can affect their infants’ brain and nervous system development.

When lead is found in household tap water, it comes from the plumbing in and near the home, not the local water supply. Water leaving the City’s water treatment plants is free of lead. While lead pipes were banned in 1986, few cities have rushed to replace the remaining lines because it would be expensive and because the lines in private homes are considered private property.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits a Chicago Department of Water Management
project. Some city residents and activists are concerned that such public works activities may loosen lead particles from old pipes. (Photo courtesy Chicago Department of Water Management)

The Chicago Department of Water Management announced a few months ago it will conduct a first of its kind study to determine the possible impact of water main construction on water quality for single family and two-flat residences with lead service lines.

“The Department of Water Management has a history of leading and proactively participating in cutting edge research that helps to both evaluate current water system protocols and inform changes to optimize water quality,” said Commissioner Barrett Murphy. “The department strives to provide the cleanest, best tasting water possible, and this new study is just the latest example of our efforts to ensure we’re using the most up to date methods to ensure water quality.”

“New smart water meters and the installation of new service lines create potential risks of lead contamination to the water supply in the city,” said Troy Hernandez, PERRO member. “When water is unused for long periods of time, lead from plumbing or pipes can leach into the water. However, remediation, the thought goes, is the homeowner’s responsibility, and a city breaks no law by not replacing them [lead pipes].”

Chicago’s water and monitoring procedures meet federal standards, but Michael Tiboris, a fellow specializing in water at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, spoke at a subsequent PERRO meeting on Feb. 25 and noted that, “Rather, the opacity of water management, regulation,
and testing are enough to make it effectively impossible for consumers with lead lines to verify the safety of their tap water. The burden of responsibility for avoiding lead exposure should not be shifted to citizens.”

The EPA continues to work closely with the City of Chicago and neighborhood organizations to provide information to residents about steps they can take to reduce exposure to lead contamination, which includes having your soil tested for lead and getting a high quality water filter for your home. “As residents of this city, we feel more attention needs to paid to some serious safety concerns related to our drinking water when the lead service water lines are disturbed.” said Rose Gomez, PERRO organizer.

Meeting participants also noted the Chicago Public Schools announced last year that several schools tested positive for elevated levels of lead.

Pilsen Elementary Community Academy, a neighborhood school located at 1420 W. 17th St., was one of several Chicago Public Schools found to have elevated levels of lead in its water since citywide testing began in May, CPS officials announced recently. According to recent testing, 75 schools have failed tests for dangerous levels of the toxic substance.

One sample at Pilsen Academy tested above federal limits of 15 parts per billion, or .015 milligrams of lead per liter of water. Water from the affected sink has been turned off, and officials are creating a remediation plan, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool wrote in a letter to Pilsen parents.

Last year another Pilsen school, Perez Elementary School, also tested positive for lead in its water. At Perez, 1241 W. 19th St., five samples tested above federal limits. Julie Morita, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, announced officials would test all CPS schools for lead “out of an abundance of caution.” Claypool added, “We’re going to test every single water outlet in the district, and we’re going to do it on an expedited basis and make any adjustments.”

According to CPS, the district has thus far received readings from 4,000 fixtures at 212 schools, with 130 fixtures failing tests for allowable lead levels. That includes 65 fountains and 65 sinks, or 3.3% of all fixtures tested.

To stay up to date on PERRO’s grassroots efforts, visit http://pilsenperro.org.