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Durbin calls for tougher standards for lead testing

Sen. Dick Durbin met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Monday, April 11, 2016. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Federal health and housing agencies need to do more to protect people from high levels of lead, Sen. Dick Durbin said Monday.

The Illinois Democrat introduced legislation last month that would update decades-old standards for lead contamination in drinking water, and a second bill that would overhaul lead testing in drinking water across the nation.

Durbin discussed the new measures with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board and at a news conference Monday. Durbin and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez introduced the Lead-Safe Housing for Kids Act in March, and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and two Michigan congressmen are pushing companion bills in the House.

Durbin and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., also have sponsored a bill that would revamp decades-old standards and testing protocols for drinking water.

The moves come after lead contamination in the Flint, Michigan, water supply became a national scandal, and news reports showed gaps in testing procedures in Chicago. Durbin noted that federal policy, including at the Chicago Housing Authority until just weeks ago, did not require housing agencies to move children out of homes with lead contamination unless blood testing showed the children had levels of lead that were more than four times the level the Centers for Disease Control pegged as unsafe.

“[The new bill would] lower the standard for lead on HUD to get down to CDC level,” Durbin said. “When people have their kids tested and the kids have high lead levels, it turns out HUD can’t move them, and they leave them there far too long.”

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can have serious negative health effects, particularly on the developing brains of young children. Lead was commonly used to make water pipes into the 1980s — 80 percent of Chicago homes’ water supplies are connected to some lead piping, Durbin said — though federal regulators use outdated methods to test for the substance. Lead also was added to house paint through the 1970s, and paint chips and dust in older homes often are tainted with lead.