Lead in Chicago's Water

Back in 2014 I was giving a talk at the local library on a local environmental issue. Afterwards a man came up and started telling me about the danger of lead in Chicago’s water. If you’re like me, when someone starts talking about the danger to the water supply, your expectation is that tinfoil hat conspiracy theories about the Illuminati are sure to follow. Then he said that he was employed by the EPA and I really started to listen.

In one year’s time that EPA employee, Miguel Del Toral, would risk his livelihood by leaking his preliminary report on the lead levels in Flint’s water to the ACLU. The local authorities in Michigan (Republicans) were downplaying the seriousness of the situation, telling people the water was safe. The EPA administrators above him (Democrats) were doing the same, getting him labelled as a “rogue employee”. The responsible EPA administrator resigned shortly thereafter. Yesterday, some of those local authorities were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Without Miguel’s courage and moral clarity, who knows how long the crisis would have gone unnoticed?

Lead in Chicago’s Drinking Water

All of the winners of the grant

Last month I was part of a group that won a $5000 grant from the Alliance for the Great Lakes to distribute water filters targeting homes in Chicago with pregnant women and children. Why?

In 2013, Miguel published a study on the lead in Chicago’s drinking water. In short, Chicago’s water main replacements and water meter installations are elevating lead concentrations to dangerous levels. This is an urgent problem because, starting in 2011, the city increased the pace at which it is replacing water mains and installing water meters. (Some folks believe this is part of a larger plan to privatize the city’s water department, but that’s another post.)

To add some detail, it’s estimated that 80% of the city’s homes are connected to water mains using lead pipes (lead service lines, LSL). Some are long (connecting to the main on the other side of the street and going to the back of the house) and some are short (connecting to the main on the same side of the street and stopping at the front of the house). Here’s a slide from a talk Miguel gave showing the architecture:

A chemical (orthophosphate) is put into the water to bind/coat the lead pipes to keep you from ingesting lead. The problem is the water main replacement and water meter installation knocks the orthophosphate off of the interior of your LSL. This means that if your water main or meter was replaced in the last two years, while you sleep and work, the water sitting in that pipe is absorbing lead. When you wake up or come home, it’s more likely that your next glass of water will have elevated levels of lead.

Here’s another slide from Miguel’s talk showing the difference in lead levels before and after water main replacement. FYI, 15 µg/L is the EPA action level.

Miguel’s study also showed that testing for lead in water is difficult and can produce many false-negatives; i.e. the test says you don’t have elevated lead levels when you do. Moreover, methods used by many municipalities work to minimize the levels of lead detected; Flint being the most salient example, but Chicago used these practices too.

Here is Miguel’s whole talk:



Nobody argues against Chicago replacing our water mains. What we do argue is that LSLs need to be replaced as well.

For the last year, I’ve been talking about the problem privately with Miguel, publicly on WBEZ, with The Guardian, other experts in field… and whoever else wants to talk about it. In that time I quickly came to conclusion that many others have come to, Chicago should remove all lead service lines to ensure safe water.

The problem is that these are costly repairs. Typically one needs to dig up the street, sidewalk, and basement to get to the LSL. How do we offset this cost? Replacing the water main requires digging up the sidewalk and street already! So why not coordinate the water main replacement with LSL replacement? Milwaukee studied problem and came to this same solution. This is not some crackpot scheme.

In addition to the long-term fix of replacing the lead service lines, there needs to be a short-term solution for those whose water mains have already been replaced. Again, our neighbor to the north had similar concerns and the same solution: water filters. While PERRO (and our partners JustDesign) are aware that our $5000 grant isn’t going to solve this problem for everyone, it will hopefully make some conversations happen amongst the political class.


The real problem here is politics. This city is run by a savvy politician.

Pretend you’re the mayor: You’ve got the Flint whistle blower warning you about this danger 6 years ago on the cover of the Chicago Tribune; 6 months into your administration. And you ignored him. So what do you? Superficially address the problem! Because you don’t make mistakes!

Make a big to-do about testing all of the schools' water fountains. Of course you know from the study that the testing is mostly ineffective. But you’d rather provide security theater than admit that you made a grave mistake for the last 6 years. By obscuring and downplaying the problem, it may still exist, but it won’t be your problem.

And why not do this? In the case of Laquan McDonald, obscuring/downplaying/delaying helped him to get re-elected! It’s a winning strategy! And our mayor is a winner!

Unfortunately, Rahm’s win requires others losing. In this case, it’s the children and pregnant women who wake up every morning to a big ol' glass of leaded water. How would they know? All the city tells its residents via a flyer on your door step (let’s hope it doesn’t blow away!) is that they should flush their tap water, once. Not once a day. Just one time after the main replacement.

_Note: It should be flushed and/or filtered every time it sits for more than a few hours. _

Rahm’s administration claims it needs more data. It’s needed more data for 6 years. Miguel’s study isn’t enough. Milwaukee’s study, also not enough. Madison has replaced all of their LSLs. Not enough. Much like the Republicans and climate change, Rahm wants his own study. I’m guessing that study will find that Rahm was right all along.

This city’s Democrats have lost their way. As I’ve said about their privatization schemes, starving the pensions, corporate TIF handouts, brutal policing, _and now _science denial… with Democrats like this, who needs Republicans?