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Opinion: Even in Chicago, beware of lead in drinking water

The decaying Western Avenue bridge over Belmont Avenue soon will be torn down. | Sun-Times

Flint, Michigan’s poisonous water is just one instance, and not a particularly new or shocking one, of our nation’s deteriorating infrastructure.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, American infrastructure is crumbling fast, and many cities are heading for problems that will rival Flint, or surpass it. Chicago, in particular, is prone for big trouble.

A recent inspection report on the city’s viaduct at Western and Belmont Avenues noted that it is both structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. Like many thousands of Chicagoans, I drive under this viaduct daily. A few years ago a chunk of concrete landed on the roof of my minivan on my way to work, but the structure has been left to stand until recently.

OPINION

Thanks to citizen pressure and experiences like mine, this viaduct is set to be razed in the coming months. But our city is full of teetering brickpiles that are not scheduled for repair.

Recent reporting on lead in Chicago’s tap water underscores the hazards associated with disturbing the city’s lead supply lines during the installation of new street water mains. Approximately 80 percent of homes in Chicago are hooked up to lead service lines, the most in the nation.

A 2013 Environmental Protection Agency study questioned the federal government’s drinking water sampling procedure, which requires testing for lead only in the first liter of water drawn from faucets. The EPA concluded that the procedure misses high lead levels and potential human exposure in subsequent draws. Nonetheless, the City of Chicago has no plans to alter its sampling and testing procedures.

Infrastructure repair is not a glamorous topic, and it doesn’t produce any real political dividends for politicians and city officials. But it happens to be the most important action officials can take to ensure the long-term health and prosperity of the public.

While the danger is not close to what has happened in Flint, I can’t help but wonder how many thousands of Chicagoans are also drinking water laced with lead, particularly young kids living in low-income communities of color and who already suffer from lead poisoning caused by inhaling lead dust from peeling paint in their homes.

On February 18, a lawsuit was filed against the City of Chicago, accusing it of not adequately warning residents who have had their street water mains replaced about the possibly elevated presence of lead in their water, and demanding the removal of thousands of lead service lines.

Chicago officials must get the lead out, and a good place to start is to accept the recommendation of the Environmental Protection Agency and start collecting drinking water samples beyond the first liter.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was quick to support federal assistance to replace Flint’s lead pipes. He should do the same for Chicago, with the same sense of urgency. Durbin recently wondered why more empathy has not been forthcoming from his Senate colleagues concerning the Flint crisis, saying, “it can happen anywhere.

Senator, it is happening here. In Chicago.

James Montgomery is an associate professor of Environmental Science and Studies at DePaul University and a 2016 Public Voices Fellow of the Op-Ed Project.

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