City should move more quickly to get lead out of Chicago’s drinking water

New technologies and better public education should be considered along with replacing lead pipes. Other cities have been able to move faster on replacement.

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Workers use a boring machine to install a new water pipe to replace an old lead-based pipe in the Oakland neighborhood on Nov. 30.

Workers use a boring machine to install a new water pipe to replace an old lead-based pipe in the Oakland neighborhood on Nov. 30.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Chicago needs to get the lead out a lot faster than it has done so far.

The city has the nation’s most serious problem with lead in drinking water. No level of lead in water is safe. Even at low levels, lead can harm kidneys and developing brains, leading to lower IQs, hearing loss and learning and behavior issues.

Lead in the water can come from old lead water service lines that connect buildings to city water mains, which are often made of iron. It can also come from lead-containing fixtures. It’s a widespread hazard because Chicago required lead pipes until 1986.

Yet, as Brett Chase reported in the Dec. 4 Sun-Times, the city has replaced only 280 of an estimated 390,000 lead service lines over the past two years. Tests can detect the presence of lead, but because the amount of lead getting into the water goes up and down, tests must be done more than once.

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”The current pace of replacement is disappointing,” Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, told us. “Even doubling that would not be a sufficient response.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., last year helped to secure $15 billion to help pay the estimated $45 billion to $60 billion cost nationwide for lead-pipe replacement. Money from the American Rescue Plan also can be used to replace lead service lines and lead faucets and fixtures.

That will help the city, which estimates the cost of replacing all its lead pipes at $8 billion to $10 billion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has committed to replacing all lead pipes in the nation within 10 years. Illinois has passed legislation requiring the replacement of all lead pipes.

But it will still take time to get the job done. And Chicago should actively be seeking more dollars, said Iyana Simba, city programs director of the Illinois Environmental Council. Now, too many people default to bottled water instead of trying to get lead pipes replaced, Simba said.

Other cities moving faster

Chicago officials say the replacement program is slow partly because of the complexities of replacing underground lead pipes amid the warren of other pipes that run under the streets. They deserve credit for tackling the problem after years of neglect. Yet this is not a project that should stretch out interminably. It’s time to ramp up the effort on all fronts.

“I think it is the city’s responsibility to provide safe water,” said Joel Brammeir, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “We have seen other communities be able to move much faster than Chicago across the country.”

Besides working on replacing the pipes, the city should be pressing forward on several other fronts.

For one, it should operate a much more robust public awareness campaign about the availability of kitchen water filters to keep out lead. Filters are not a permanent solution because they have to be properly installed and must be maintained, or they lose their effectiveness. But they can help keep lead at bay until pipes are replaced.

The city also should do a better job of making private property owners aware of the problem.

In addition, the city also should be investigating other technologies that can help.

“A lot of people [are] talking about new technologies, which is OK,” Learner said. “Rome can’t be built in a day. As a practical matter, the city of Chicago can’t snap its fingers and arrange to replace all the lead service lines at once.”

For example, adding phosphates to drinking water can line pipes with an insoluble crust, preventing lead ions from leaching into the water. The process can take years, but two California scientists said in 2019 it can be speeded up by threading a wire down the inside of a pipe and temporarily switching on an electric current.

Another option has been proposed by retired metallurgical engineer Frank Gaunce of Plainfield, who worked for years in electro-chemistry. Gaunce says placing iron or zinc electrodes driven into the soil and connecting them to lead service pipes can keep the small amount of chlorine that is added to purify drinking water from causing lead to leach out of the pipes.

The Chicago Park District has expressed interest in the idea for its drinking fountains, he said, but details are still being worked out on lab testing to show how well the idea works.

If iron electrodes or other new technologies can be proved to work, they can be put in place more quickly than pipes can be replaced. That’s a lot of lead that could be kept out of drinking water while the city works to finish its replacement program.

By requiring lead pipes for so long, the city created a serious lead problem. It needs to work more quickly to resolve it.

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