The brain-damaging metal lead, continues to pose threats to public water systems and their users throughout the United States. This last summer, thousands of Chicago residents received notice that their homes have been connected to a city water system that has been leaching alarming levels of lead into their water supply for years. It’s not only the age old pipes that are the cause of this either. Federal researchers have found that when city street mains have been replaced, lead makes its way into the water system afterwards.
Chicago’s officials say that the tap water is safe because chemicals have been added, which form a protective coating inside the lead pipes. At the same time, officials acknowledge bursts of lead can flow out of household taps, in particular if water hasn’t been used for several hours. Thus, the EPA has advised any householder with lead service lines to flush their pipes for three to five minutes any time water hasn’t been used for several hours.
The Chicago Tribune stated that, “Mayor Rahm Emanuel [has] pushed to increase water rates to finance a more aggressive effort to replace leaky water mains, many of which were installed during the late 1800s and early 1900s. More than 440 miles of water mains have been replaced since then with new cast iron pipes, but in most cases they were reconnected to old lead service lines that run between the street and individual homes.”
The Chicago Department of Water Management enlisted volunteers to have their water tested this summer, particularly on streets that face greater risk of exposure. The Tribune reported that the Water Department bases its assurances of safety on 50 federally mandated tests conducted every three years, but when conducting those tests, the department rarely tested on streets where a water main has been replaced.
City officials have been on the defensive since 2013, when EPA researchers published a peer-reviewed study that found street work and plumbing repairs in Chicago inadvertently caused the toxic metal to leach into tap water by shaking loose the protective coating inside lead service lines.
Researchers are finding that even tiny amounts of lead can permanently damage the brains of young children, increasing the chance they will suffer learning disabilities and be more prone to criminal behavior later in life. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is no safe level of exposure. Read more here.