Is MeterSave cause of lead in drinking water?
May 3, 2019

Photo by Christopher Valentino
There are concerns that meter installation in older homes may contribute to higher lead levels in drinking water.

By Peter Winslow

The drinking water supplied to thousands of Chicago residences contains elevated and potentially dangerous levels of lead. Within the past few months, the Chicago Department of Water Management (DWM) sent letters to homeowners affected by possible elevated lead levels; most of those receiving notice live in the city’s southwestern portion.

Part of the blame for this hike in heavy metal goes to DWM’s MeterSave Program. This initiative is designed to conserve water and cut water bills for those eligible to participate. Applicants for MeterSave must own a non-metered, single-family or two-flat residence and volunteer to have workers install a new water meter.

In 2016, the DWM launched an explorative study to investigate water quality in Chicago homes equipped with MeterSave Program water meters, along with the City’s infrastructure of lead pipe service lines, to determine whether Chicagoans are at risk from harmful contaminants.

Although the DWM investigation is ongoing, a recently released preliminary data report states investigators found higher concentrations of lead, specifically above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) action level, in 51 of the 296 single-family homes tested before and after meter installation. Roughly 20% of the homes studied thus far had elevated levels only after meter installation.

Despite the relatively small sample size in comparison to the amount of single-family dwellings in Chicago, these findings nonetheless raise concern, as workers have installed more than 130,000 water meters since MeterSave Program began in 2009.

Chicago, like other large cities, uses anti-corrosion techniques to minimize the potential for harmful contaminants to enter the water supply. The city adds blended phosphate to its water, which forms a protective coating on the water service lines from treatment facilities to homes.

DWM investigation

The DWM’s investigation suggests its water meter installation could disrupt the protective phosphate coating in water service lines, allowing the residential water supply to absorb lead.

“There has not been one determination of causation,” said Megan Vidis, director of media relations of the DWM, regarding the elevated levels. Besides meter installation, higher lead concentrations could stem from low water usage, old plumbing fixtures, and replacing lead service lines, Vidis indicated.

Investigators have found water supplies in some homes contain elevated lead levels.

Many Chicago single–family homes built before 1986 have lead service lines transporting drinking water to faucets, showers, and other fixtures. Service lines connect the City’s water mains to these older structures. The DWM is working with CDM Smith, a global engineering firm, to evaluate dynamic variables that factor into replacing lead service lines. The two entitles are working together to determine a feasible approach for uprooting the service lines, an endeavor that more than likely will carry a multi-billion dollar price tag and take many years to complete.

Regarding specific wards affected, Vidis said there is no geographical correlation between elevated lead levels and water meter installation.

As a temporary remedy, the DWM said the City will provide free water filters to any household that previously tested above the EPA action level. It also promises to conduct water quality testing for homes equipped with MeterSave meters and those without, free of charge, upon request.

So what makes lead so dangerous? Lead is a neurotoxin, and once it enters the body it gets stored in bones, blood, and tissue. Long term, chronic exposure in adults can lead to increased likelihood of high blood pressure, kidney disease, and brain damage. Children are at higher risk of lead poisoning due to the possibility for irreversible damage in a body that is not fully developed.

Residents and City officials worry over how the City will implement solutions to resolve this problem.

Cardenas wants hearings

“I plan on facilitating hearings regarding the contamination of lead in our water,” said 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas.

“We need to understand the science of this,” he added. “At the end of the day, exposing water to contamination is not something to be lackadaisical about.” Cardenas said he hopes to schedule public hearings as soon as the second week of May.

Other preventive action individuals can take to aid and maintain water quality includes “flushing” a residence’s water system continuously for five minutes, especially when it has been stagnant for six hours or more. Ways of flushing include doing the dishes, taking a shower, or running water from a faucet.

Anyone interested in requesting a water quality test may call 3-1-1 to receive a test kit. For more information and to view results of water quality tests, visit www.chicagowaterquality.org.

For the Department of Water Management, call (312) 744-4420. For Cardenas’s office, call (773) 523-8250.