Chemical warfare… in my old backyard… doesn’t surprise me one bit…. if lead paint don’t work, let’s try lead water….. and flouride…..
With public officials across the nation under fire for downplaying the health risks posed by lead water pipes, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is moving to start testing tap water in the homes of children poisoned by the brain-damaging metal.
A top official at the Chicago Department of Public Health revealed the new program Monday during a presentation to lawyers, physicians, researchers and advocates debating how to address the city’s lingering problems with lead poisoning, which continues to ravage children in poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West sides at rates significantly higher than the national average.
Details of the water testing program are still being worked out. But in both tone and substance, the policy change marks an abrupt shift by city officials who for years have insisted Chicagoans face little, if any, risk from drinking water distributed to thousands of homes through lead pipes.
“We recognize the water in Chicago is generally safe, but to reassure people I think drawing more samples would be very helpful,” Dr. Cort Lohff, the health department’s director of environmental health, said in a brief interview after the meeting organized by the Loyola University Center for the Human Rights of Children. “If we find elevated levels, we can work with the water department to mitigate the problem.”
Exposure to even small amounts of lead causes subtle brain damage that can trigger learning disabilities and violent behavior later in life. The need for new solutions is particularly acute in Chicago, where a Tribune investigation found hot spots of lead poisoning in some of the city’s poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
The Tribune reported in February that health department inspectors do not test tap water for lead when investigating the homes of poisoned children, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says water can contribute up to 60 percent of an infant’s exposure during a critical period of brain development.
Unlike most other major U.S. cities, Chicago required the use of lead pipes until the federal government banned them nationwide in the mid-1980s. Lead service lines connect nearly 80 percent of the city’s properties to street mains, according to the Chicago Department of Water Management.
Most of the lead that harms children today comes from flaking paint in homes built before 1978 — a major problem in cities with older housing in various states of disrepair. But water could be a factor in cases where there are no signs of lead-based paint in the home — about 20 percent of the lead poisoning cases in Chicago each year, Lohff said.
The health department’s plan drew praise from Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient who has been sharply critical of the way Chicago has managed and monitored its public water supply.
Edwards, who last year played a major role in exposing lead hazards in the Flint, Mich., water system, said Chicago officials in 2009 rejected his offer to conduct the same type of testing that the Emanuel administration is moving to begin now.
“I had several conversations with them about the fact that numerous outside entities were finding high lead in Chicago water … and that those lead levels could clearly elevate the blood lead of children,” Edwards said in an email. “They then stopped returning my phone calls and emails.”
In 2013, two years before the Flint crisis drew national attention to the hazards of lead water pipes, EPA research in Chicago found high levels of the toxic metal in homes where street mains had been replaced or new water meters installed. The study also found the city’s official testing protocols — based on federal rules — can miss high concentrations of lead in drinking water.
Utilities are required to check only the first liter drawn in the morning after the water hasn’t been used for several hours. The EPA study found that although the first liter often is lead-free, high levels can flow through taps for several minutes afterward.
Because official testing generally hasn’t detected hazards, the city must test only 50 homes every three years. Most of the homes tested since 2003 are on the city’s Far Northwest and Southwest sides — areas where cases of lead poisoning are rare.
When the health department visits the homes of poisoned children, inspectors will sample the first and sixth liters of water drawn from kitchen taps. Edwards called that approach “very good.”