City asked to provide lead water filters to address ‘crisis’

Advocates also chide Mayor Lori Lightfoot for “glacial” pace of pipe replacements.

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Chicago Department of Water Management employees work at the site of a water main break on North Nagle and West Catalpa avenues in January 2019.

Chicagoans who have water main work on their streets can request free filter kits from the city. Advocates say the city should broaden distribution of filters to protect against lead.

Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration must ramp up its distribution of free water filters to protect residents against lead poisoning as the city moves at a “glacial” pace to remove pipes with the brain-damaging metal, advocates said Monday.

Three environmental organizations and state Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, called on City Hall to improve access to free water filters to address the “crisis” of lead exposure. That move should also be part of a larger program to warn low-income residents about the hazards of lead, especially among children. 

Lightfoot has boasted that she’s the first Chicago mayor to begin tackling the problem of removing almost 400,000 lead service lines in the city but her administration has fallen behind its own modest goals of replacements. 

In September 2020, Lightfoot said the city would replace lead lines in 600 homes of low-income residents, a small start to the bigger problem. State law gives the city an unusually long period of 50 years to replace the lead lines. 

As of Monday, lead lines in 183 homes were replaced under the low-income “equity” program. Additionally, another 34 homeowners paid for replacements, which the city has estimated can cost tens of thousands of dollars per job.

In a statement, the city water department said any home that shows tested tap water with amounts of lead over a federal limit of 15 parts per billion is eligible for a free pitcher and filter set. Also, residents who have had water or sewer main work on their block or received a water meter can get free filter kits from the city. 

That program can be improved to be more easily accessible and the city can make many more people aware that they are vulnerable to lead contamination, said Brenda Santoyo, senior policy analyst for Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. 

“Families should not have to jump through hoops,” Santoyo said. “People should be able to access these resources immediately.”

Homes with children or pregnant women should be prioritized for filters, she added.

The city said it will investigate any homes that test above the 15 parts per billion. A recent report from the Guardian cited city data showing at least 1,000 Chicago homes had lead in water that exceeded federal standards. Even with those cases, the city is in compliance with federal and state laws, guidelines advocates say are weak.

Gina Ramirez, a senior adviser for Southeast Environmental Task Force, said the city isn’t treating the problem as a serious health threat. 

“There is no amount of lead that is safe when consumed,” Ramirez said. “We need the city of Chicago to acknowledge this is a public health crisis.” 

Villivalam, whose young son was found to have high lead levels due to water and paint in the family’s home several years ago, said there is funding from the state and the federal government for fixes. 

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, provided the city with $4 million in funding for lead service line replacements earlier this year, an agency spokeswoman said.

“While the city of Chicago has committed to tackling this problem, the pace is glacial,” said Angela Guyadeen, director of the safe water initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

State Sen. Ram Villivalam speaks to reporters at Niles West High School in Skokie in July 2021.

State Sen. Ram Villivalam said his young son had high levels of lead in his blood due to water and paint in the family’s Chicago home several years ago.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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