News Feature | September 30, 2013

EPA Study Finds Lead In Chicago Drinking Water Due To Repairs

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Pipe upgrades are leaving Chicagoans with a bad taste in their mouth: lead. 

"Dangerous levels of lead are turning up in Chicago homes where pipes made of the toxic metal were disturbed by street work or plumbing repairs, according to a new federal study that suggests the city's aggressive efforts to modernize its water system may pose health risks," The Chicago Tribune recently reported

According to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lead in Chicago's water infrastructure may seep into the drinking supplies when the pipes are altered. And the EPA said the study contains insights that reach far beyond the Windy City. 

"Although the study was conducted in Chicago, its results may have implications for other cities with lead service lines. A lead service line is a pipe that is made of lead that brings drinking water into your home from the city's water main. Lead service lines are the single largest source of lead in residential drinking water," the agency said in the study

The research suggested authorities may have to find a way to more effectively screen for lead, since the problem was not as dramatically highlighted in regulatory compliance testing. 

"Proper selection of sampling sites, sampling protocol, and other site conditions is critical for evaluating the amount of lead corrosion and release that is occurring in the distribution system," the study said.  

Lead is not usually found in source water, but enters the supply through materials in the plumbing system. "Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder," The Daily Gazet, a publication of a local alderman, reported

That doesn't mean new homes are out of the woods. "Even legally 'lead-free' plumbing may contain up to 8 percent lead. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures which can leach significant amounts of lead into the water, especially hot water," the publication said.  

Fixing this problem faces a major barrier: cost. 

"What would it cost to dig up all those service lines?" Marketplace asked. "That's a huge expense," Rick Andrew, an expert on water quality and treatment at non-profit NSF International told the outlet. "Especially a city like Chicago, where most of the buildings were built before the 1980s."

Water filters for individual homes are costly, as well. "Usually, a high-quality system to remove lead out of the water would run a family, to have it installed by a licensed plumber, around $1,500," Andrew Wilson, from suburban Angel Water, told the outlet.

For previous Water Online reporting on lead, click here