Experts, Environmentalists Alarmed By High Lead Levels Found In Illinois Water Supply

Environmentalists and experts are reacting to new reports that reveal documented high levels of lead in the water supply of numerous Illinois communities.

by Ellyn Fortino, originally posted on May 13, 2016


High lead levels have been found in almost 200 Illinois public water systems at least once over the past 12 years, according to a new Chicago Tribune analysis, which has triggered increased calls for action to ensure the safety of drinking water in the state.

Over 800,000 Illinoisans are served by the nearly 200 water systems, which had lead levels higher than the federal standard in at least one year between 2004 and 2015, according to the newspaper. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” for lead is 15 parts per billion in at least 10 percent of collected samples.

Testing in roughly a dozen Chicago-area water systems surpassed that federal standard on at least two occasions during the 12-year period. The city of Chicago, however, was not among the water systems with lead levels over the EPA’s action level. The last time the city of Chicago hit that threshold was in 1992.

Some of the affected communities cited in the newspaper’s article include Berwyn, Barrington, Forest View, Marengo, Richmond, Volo and York Township.

“This is a serious problem,” James Montgomery, an associate professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University, said in reaction to the findings. “I think it’s something that everybody needs to be concerned with … We’re gonna keep seeing this. This is rippling across the United States. I guess if there’s one positive outcome of Flint, unfortunately for the people, is that it’s raised awareness now about lead in [the] public water supply.”

As Montgomery indicated, increased interest in the safety of drinking water stems from the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The town’s water supply was contaminated with lead as a result of an April 2014 switch of the city’s water source, a decision made under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager. As many as 9,000 children in Flint may have been exposed to lead, which is known to adversely affect neurodevelopment.

“There’s no safe level of lead,” Montgomery said. “You’re not going to reverse the effects of lead as a neurotoxin, and that’s the unfortunate thing here.”

Susan Schantz, a professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, said that prior to the Flint water crisis, the issue of lead in drinking water mostly flew under the radar.

“I think that Flint was kind of a wake up call for all of us,” she said. “For a long time in the past, we focused on other sources of lead exposure — paint in older homes and lead in leaded gasoline. And we knew there was a possibility of lead exposure from water, because in older homes there are lead water pipes, but it wasn’t something that was receiving a lot of attention. I think that Illinois is not the first place after Flint. We’ve been hearing about other places around the country that has the same problem.”

The problem stems from lead plumbing and service lines, which were connected to many homes built before the mid-1980s.

“My understanding is Illinois has more lead service lines, water mains, than any other state,” explained Walton Kelly, a groundwater geochemist with the Illinois State Water Survey. “It’s not surprising that there are going to be areas (with) lead issues because of the very old infrastructure.”

Water leaving the treatment plants does not have lead in it, Kelly explained. “But once it gets out into the distribution system, that’s where the lead gets into the system,” he said.

Galesburg, for example, has faced persistent water contamination issues due to aging lead pipes. Children in Knox County, which includes Galesburg, were found to have lead levels of twice the state average in their blood in 2014, and have been testing higher than average since at least 2004. Knox County has gone above federal lead standards numerous times.

Federal regulators called on Galesburg officials late last month to take several steps that include providing bottled water or filters to affected residents, increasing testing for customers and conducting a corrosion study.

Water systems that had high lead levels over the past 12 years reportedly notified the public and took corrective action. However, such notification and action is often not immediately required by water systems, the newspaper found. That’s because water systems are typically deemed in violation by the EPA only when they surpass lead level standards during a complete round of water testing, a process that often takes three years.

Schantz said there should be greater information provided to the public about water lead levels.

“From reading the article, it sounds like that hasn’t always been the case in the past,” she said. “I think there needs to be some kind of household action plan so that people know [whether their water is contaminated with lead.] And in cases where levels are really high, probably blood testing should be done, especially if there are small children in the home, to see if they actually do have elevated exposure.”

To protect against potential lead exposure, Montgomery said residents living in homes with lead plumbing or services lines should run their tap for at least three minutes before using water, consider installing a water filtration system and replace their service lines, if possible.

“The big issue is encouraging people to replace those services lines, but that’s not cheap,” he added. “Maybe one option of that is to have some kind of a cost-share system where the homeowner and the city agree to pay half the cost of getting the lines replaced.”

State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) is spearheading Illinois legislation aimed at safeguarding drinking water against lead contamination. The proposed “Lead in Drinking Water Prevention Act” would “begin the conversation on how we can restore trust in our drinking water in Illinois” and ensure “it’s safe for everybody here,” Steans said at a news conference this week at the State Capitol.

“Replacing lead service lines and the aging water infrastructure is one of the top goals,” she said.

Under the proposal, the Illinois EPA would “prioritize lead pipe replacement through the state’s revolving fund that already exists,” according to the senator. Steans said the state should also explore ways to expand the fund so more pipe replacement projects can be covered.

The bill also calls for increased water testing and reporting.

Environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, support Steans’ measure, SB 550.

“We are facing serious lead concerns here in Illinois. The source of the problems may be different, but as in Flint, the need for better public protections is clearly needed,” said Henry Henderson, NRDC’s Midwest director. “Flint was not just a failure of infrastructure–it stands as a failure of transparency, vigilance and proper priorities.”

NRDC helped file a lawsuit in January with other national groups to ensure Flint residents have access to safe drinking water.

The proposed Lead in Drinking Water Prevention Act “is key in delivering many of the protections we are suing to achieve in Michigan: increased water testing, increased transparency of that data and prioritization of resources for lead line replacements where necessary,” Henderson said. “While we cannot replace all the lead lines overnight, knowing where the problem lies will help inform where we need to prioritize our efforts and fix the problem.”

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