Lead in drinking water is problem in city, experts and PERRO charge
August 4, 2017

By Patrick Butler

PERRO in July held an event in Pilsen in which the organization gave away water filters and testing kits to community members.

Chicago may indeed have some of the country’s best drinking water—but only until it reaches the leadened service lines leading to your kitchen or bathroom taps.

That warning came from local environmental activists Troy Hernandez of Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) and Daniel Wahl of Just Design (an environmental justice cooperative) and Engineers Without Borders at an event they held July 15 at Simone’s, 960 W. 18th St.

During the four-hour program, they distributed free water filters, gave chlorine test demonstrations, and offered signups for home water quality tests.

Hernandez and Wahl agreed that, while the country as a whole has done a good job getting the lead out of paint and gasoline, water supplies are a different story.

It does not help that even testing for lead in water is hard to do correctly under the best of circumstances, Wahl said, explaining, “you’re going to get very high false negative rates.  Ninety percent of the time, when you do get elevated lead levels, you’re going to miss it because everyone’s service line is a little different.”

Water main replacement

Hernandez and Wahl believe the problem became critical in Chicago some years ago when the City started replacing water mains—some more than a century old. That work loosened the orthophosphate covering that had been keeping the water from touching the lead, said Wahl, a software engineer and founder of Engineers Without Borders.

Now that the City has ramped up water main replacements, workers are pulling apart a lot more pipes, dislodging the orthophosphate and leaving the already treated water in direct contact with the lead pipes, Wahl continued.

While lead has for centuries been prized for its many uses, it also has its health hazards, said Wahl. “Studies I’ve read show a correlation between cities that have a lot of lead poisoning and violence. Studies show lead exposure can cause a ten percent increase in violent crime.

“Everybody knows all about lead paint, but we’ve been replacing all those water mains and not telling anybody about the dangers,” said Wahl, whose Just Design group has partnered with Hernandez’s PERRO to direct its safe-water message especially toward pregnant women and young children.

“For children, there are developmental dangers,” Hernandez said. “For adults, there can be cardiovascular issues.”

So where should Chicago look for examples of cities with a good handle on the growing lead poisoning problem?

Places such as Madison and Milwaukee are good places to start, said Wahl, adding that those two Wisconsin cities are offering to split the costs with homeowners to replace the service lines.

Spreading the word

Closer to home, Wahl and Hernandez said they have been spreading the word about safe water by knocking on doors and hosting four educational events at the Lozano Library, 1805 S. Loomis St.

Speakers on those programs included U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water expert Miguel Del Toral, a Pilsen resident who played a key role in exposing the lead poison crisis in Flint, MI. Del Toral had harsh words for some Chicago health officials who tried to minimize the dangers of disrupting the old water mains carelessly, without taking proper precautions.

However, City officials insist the water is fine and stand by a letter from Water Management Commissioner Thomas Powers to City Council members in response to Del Toral’s water quality study.

City says water is safe

“Chicago water is absolutely safe to drink and meets or exceeds all standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois EPA,” Powers said.

City officials say they adhere to the 1991 federal Lead and Copper Rule that requires only 50 homes (out of a population of 2.7 million people) to be tested every three years.

Del Toral noted that Chicago has more lead service lines than any other American city.

Hernandez and others also challenged the water inspectors’ practice of checking only the first liter drawn in the morning. He noted the first liter often contains little if any lead, while more toxic levels often flow through the pipes for several minutes afterward. 

Like many local residents, Tiffany Werner, who described herself as an “environmentalist,” admitted she had not thought much about the problem until her toddler son got sick and tests showed he had elevated lead levels.

“From then on we just did a lot of research, then talked to our landlord about the paint and water,” she said. “You never really think about something like this happening to you or your family.

“Since then, my husband and I have been looking at ways to be protective in our home,” Werner added. She now believes everyone should “get a testing kit, test your walls and water. Especially if you have young children.”

Another neighbor, Arturo Alvarez, said he found the program and follow-up discussions at Simone’s “very informative.” He said he added a filter to his tap a while ago but still drinks mostly bottled water.

Outreach important

Alvarez said the most important outreach should be to Pilsen’s Hispanic community, “which is still largely oblivious to the danger” posed by lead poisoning.

People concerned about the problem can protect themselves by getting one of the $30 lead-rated filters available at many hardware and department stores and flushing their taps for five minutes if their water has been sitting for six hours or more.

For further information, contact Hernandez at info@pilsenperro.org. or www.pilsenperro.org. or Just Design at justdesigncoop@gmail.com or www.justdesigncoop.org.

To contact the City of Chicago Department of Water Management, call (312) 744-4420 or log on to www.cityofchicago.org/WaterManagement.