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Chicago's Got a Lead-Contaminated Drinking Water Problem of Its Own

A new lawsuit alleges the city’s lead pipe replacement program has been doing more harm than good.

Chicago construction crews work to repair a 36 inch water main break in 2008. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

As Flint’s water crisis stretches on, anxieties about lead are rising across the U.S. In Chicago Thursday, a group of residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the city, claiming that it knowingly initiated construction projects that amplified risks of toxic levels of the brain-damaging metal in residents’ tap water, and that the city failed to warn residents adequately.

“We trusted the city,” one plaintiff, Tatjana Blotkevic, whose husband experienced heart attack-like symptoms during and after a city construction project near their home, said in a press release. “It’s the kind of thing you just assume—that your tap water is safe to drink and that your city has done its due diligence to prevent a health hazard like toxic levels of lead.”

To be clear, this isn’t a repeat of Flint, where officials failed to implement anti-corrosion measures after switching to a highly corrosive water source, and then further failed to follow proper testing procedures. To the contrary, Chicago treats its water with a chemical compound that creates a lining on lead pipes that prevents corrosion, and it follows federal testing protocols.

The central issue in this case is that with the best of intentions, Chicago has been modernizing its water system since 2009, replacing lead mains that are up to a century old. An estimated 80 percent of properties in Chicago receive water through pipes that date back well before 1986, when lead pipes were banned—perhaps more than any other major American city.

Problem is, as the city has worked to replace mains and meters, it has been replacing only small portions of the lead service lines that connect to the new infrastructure. Multiple studies by the EPA and university researchers have shown that partial replacement of lead service lines disturbs the chemical coating that protects service lines, allowing dangerous levels of lead to leach into the water supply for weeks, months, or even years.

The lawsuit asserts that the city must have been aware of these risks. Since 2008, the EPA, the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Water Works Association have all expressed concerns against partial replacement. In 2013, an EPA study in Chicago found elevated levels of lead in water “associated with sites having known disturbances to the lead service lines.” Yet the lawsuit alleges the city of Chicago issued only one warning—shortly after that EPA study was released—about the effects of the service pipe replacements. That warning allegedly failed to mention lead, and gave bad instructions on how to flush pipes to combat the effects of corrosion.

"If I had a lead pipe, I would never trust the water in terms of lead just because of these particles that fall off," Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech and an expert on lead infrastructure, told Chicago Parent in 2014. "Drinking the water is like a game of Russian roulette."

So why wouldn’t the city of Chicago have caught elevated lead levels earlier, if it followed government protocol? The Tribune explains:

… Chicago is testing tap water for possible lead contamination in only 50 homes every three years—the federal standard. That's a pittance in a city of 2.7 million where any home built before 1986 could have lead pipes.

The city doesn't need federal approval to go beyond federal guidelines and test more homes. It should do that, at least in construction zones where pipes have been replaced or disrupted by construction work.

No one knows at this point how many Chicagoans may or may not have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their water. Chicago has conducted more than 1,600 water main and sewer replacement projects since January 2009, which, according to the lawsuit, “directly affect the water supply to Chicago residents.” Just how those residents may have been affected, and what the city plans to do about it, remains to be seen. If there’s any lesson to be learned from Flint, Chicago might want to consider acting quickly.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.