Nearly 130,000 children exposed to lead-containing drinking water in Chicago

About 129,000 children under the age of six in Chicago are exposed to toxic lead in their drinking water through lead pipes, according to a study released Monday.

The study used artificial intelligence to analyze 38,000 home water tests conducted for the city of Chicago, along with neighborhood demographics, state blood samples, and a host of other factors.

It found that black and Latino residents are more likely to have lead-contaminated water due to lead pipes. And it estimated that the 19% of children in Chicago who use unfiltered tap water as their main drinking source have about twice as much lead in their blood as they would otherwise.

“These findings indicate that childhood lead exposure is widespread in Chicago, and that there is racial disparity in both testing rates and exposure levels,” said the study, published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Jama Pediatrics. “We estimate that more than two-thirds of children are exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water.”

The federal government has said there is no safe lead level in drinking water. Studies have shown that even small amounts of the highly toxic metal can affect brain development in children and contribute to premature birth, heart problems and kidney disease. Yet Chicago still has 400,000 homes served by potentially water-polluting lead pipes – more than any other U.S. city.

“I think residents have reason to be concerned,” said public health professor Benjamin Huynh, who co-authored the study with Elizabeth Chin and Mathew Kiang. “I think this should be a call to get your water tested for lead, see what the results are and then make your decisions accordingly.”

Huynh said the idea to conduct the study came after seeing the Guardian’s analysis of 24,000 city water tests, which found that a third of home water tests contained more lead than the federal limit for bottled drinking water, which is 5 parts per billion (ppb). .

The Johns Hopkins study used a stricter benchmark, flagging all at-home tests that detected more than 1 ppb. Huynh said this was based on the fact that no level of lead consumption is considered safe and that lead service lines can often cause spikes in lead levels that go unnoticed, especially after being disrupted by nearby construction. Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called on state and local governments to limit the lead on drinking fountains in schools to no more than 1 ppb.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a municipal “action level” of 15 ppb, meaning cities are only required to notify the public if at least 10% of a small sample of homes tested are above that number.

With this measure, Chicago complies with the rules.

While the EPA is proposing to require most cities across the country to remove all lead pipes within 10 years, it is giving Chicago 40 years to do so due to the large number of unreplaced pipes in the city.

“If we look at another forty years of contaminated drinking water, what does that mean for the children?” Huynh said. “What can we do about that in the meantime?”

skip the newsletter promotion

Chakena Perry, water advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, called on the city to distribute water filters to households with lead service lines and do everything possible to speed up the work to remove them.

“Clean drinking water is something that everyone deserves, regardless of their zip code or living conditions,” Perry said.

City officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. The city’s newly elected mayor, Brandon Johnson, has pledged to replace 40,000 lead lines by 2027.

But the study authors and other experts say that’s not enough.

“With 400,000 lead service lines, Chicago officials must be much more aggressive in protecting their children and the public at large,” said water safety engineer Elin Betanzo, who was among the first to identify Flint’s lead water problems. “There’s really no reason for anyone to drink lead in their water.”