Putting a hold on installing water meters across Chicago, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Tuesday, was the right move amid fears of dangerous levels of lead.
A city study, now a full year old, found that installing the meters, which requires disturbing decades-old lead pipes, often leads to elevated levels of lead in tap water.
But the temporary hold is only a beginning.
Now the city must tackle — with a transparency that has been lacking — legitimate fears that some Chicagoans, particularly children and pregnant women, are being unduly exposed to elevated levels of lead that can damage the nervous system, cause learning disabilities, impair hearing, damage blood cells and even limit a child’s height.
In the short term, the city should ramp up its program of distributing filters to remove lead from drinking water. The city should also do more to get the word out that lead testing kits and free water filters are available.
The test kits and filters have been available for some time, but you’d be hard pressed to find many Chicagoans who are aware of that.
The city also must do a better job of informing residents whenever there is a disruption in their local water system — such as a home meter installation or the tearing up of a street — that they and their children face a greater risk of exposure to lead. Meter installations and road work can disturb a protective chemical lining inside water pipes, allowing lead to leach into drinking water.
In the past, the city has issued no such warnings, as WBEZ radio reported in March. Even when a city crew was replacing a damaged lead pipe with a piece of copper, a common procedure that can result in spikes of lead that last for months, work crews simply left behind flyers telling residents to run their water for at least five minutes when their service lines were reconnected.
The city should look for partners, as well, in educating the public about the dangers of lead. It’s a big job. Health care providers could be enlisted to ask people whether they have had their water tested or installed filters, and to let them know if they live in areas where the risk is greater. Given the particular danger of lead to children, schools could be enlisted to help in a public information campaign.
Before all else, City Hall has to be much more open and forthright about the extent of the problem and what it’s doing about it. City officials have underplayed the problem for years.
Last fall, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration were criticized for failing to notify owners of all 165,000 Chicago homes with water meters that a “small subset” of the homes had tested positive for elevated lead levels. Since then, testing at another 210 homes found that lead levels rose about 22% of the time after meters were installed.
Equally troubling, a review of the results of lead-testing kits used in 8,400 Chicago homes found that 13% of the homes had levels of lead higher than allowed by law in bottled water. In 7% of the homes, lead levels were three times higher than the federal standard.
What level of lead is safe? In children, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no known safe level.
For all of that, Chicago has done only the bare legal minimum of testing for lead. The city tests just 50 homes every three years — and they tend to be the homes of water department employees and retirees who live on the Northwest and Southwest sides, where reports of elevated lead are rare.
Over time — years, not decades — the city will simply have to replace all its lead service pipes, which join buildings to the city’s cast-iron water mains. It will be hugely expensive, but Chicago could work with dozens of other cities, which face the same problem, to get federal funding.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who has been pushing for more action on the problem of lead pipes, says he would like to see public hearings and greater cooperation from the administrative staff.
The water department and other relevant agencies, Waguespack said, have to work as “direct partners” with the City Council.
Point being: That hasn’t been happening.
There is a risk of unwarranted fears in any discussion about lead in drinking water, which is surely why Chicago and many other cities have downplayed the issue. The worry is that Chicagoans might overreact, not understanding that lead levels are within federal standards overall, and not appreciating that lead is a challenge for most older cities.
But that’s an argument for better educating the public, not slowing the flow of information about a very real public health concern.
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