Check your home for a lead service line. To
find out where to look and what to look for, the EPA has photos and
instructions on its website,
Stop drinking and cooking with tap water. The
city offers free water testing by calling 311, but Edwards says
even if you test your water and it comes back negative, there's no
way to know it's always safe.
Get a filter and use it. A pitcher-style filter
like Brita or PUR works well to remove the majority of lead from
the water. More expensive filters are available to remove lead and
other contaminants entirely.
Get your child tested. A simple blood test can
determine if your child has been exposed to lead. Ask for the
number of micrograms per deciliter found in your child's blood. No
level of lead is safe, but anything 5 and over is of definite
concern. Children are supposed to be regularly tested starting
around age 1, but if your infant has been exposed to tap water, get
them tested sooner.
Think about school and daycare. Although tap
water in homes falls under government regulation, water in schools
and daycares are completely unregulated, Lambrinidou says. Her
organization has tested water in schools in D.C. and other cities
and found levels of lead as high as 20,000 parts per billion, even
in schools without lead pipes.
Consider getting your lead service line
replaced. If you own your home, consider replacing your
lead service line with newer copper pipe. It's not cheap-$2,000 to
$3,000, plus the cost of permits-but it will eliminate the risk in
that home. Powers says the Department of Water Management is happy
to work with any household that wants to replace the entire lead
In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act made the EPA responsible
for monitoring drinking water for public health concerns like lead.
How much lead in water is deemed acceptable?
According to the SDWA, up to 10 percent of homes in an area can
have any amount of lead in the water. Only when more than 10
percent of homes dispense lead that exceeds 15 parts per billion,
does EPA consider the water utility serving these homes to be over
the "lead action level" and require actions to control the
The problem is that number has nothing to do with health. The
level was set at what regulators felt could be achieved at that
time. But levels of just 7 parts per billion are believed to be
capable of increasing a person's blood level over 5 micrograms per
deciliter-the current level of concern for health.
Despite the fact that 40 years have passed and much more is
known about lead's harmful effects at low levels, the EPA's
standards have yet to be changed.
In the EPA's study of lead levels in Chicago homes, 88 percent
of homes had one or more water sample where the lead value was over
7 parts per billion. The highest values recorded were more than
twice the current action level and more than 5 times higher than
what's known to be safe.
"Don't drink the water."
It's a phrase you're used to hearing about international travel,
but not about your own tap. But a growing number of water quality
experts agree: Chicago tap water may not be safe, especially for
children and pregnant women.
The problem? Lead. Chicago's old housing means lead pipes bring
water into most homes, and the city's efforts to modernize the
water system may be making contamination worse.
A recent study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
shows much higher levels of lead in the running water than
previously thought. Anyone who lives in a home with lead pipes may
be at risk, and since more than 80 percent of the city's housing
stock was built before they were banned, lead is potentially
leaching into the drinking water of thousands of children.
"There is no way you can consider water to be safe if you have a
lead pipe and you have pregnant women or children under age 6
living in your home," says Marc Edwards, a professor of
environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech.
A 2008 MacArthur genius grant winner, Edwards spent 10 years
uncovering a massive spike in Washington, D.C.'s, lead levels in
tap water, which was linked to hundreds and possibly thousands of
children being poisoned and the miscarriage rate rising
Here's why Edwards and many of his colleagues are worried about
our city's tap water and how it might be harming thousands of
What does lead do?
Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause permanent brain
damage in children, leading to learning difficulties, aggression
and hyperactivity. Lead poisoning often goes unnoticed because
there are no symptoms, and problems often don't appear until years
after a child was exposed.
"Lead poisoning is one of those silent epidemics," says Dr.
Jeffrey Griffiths, professor of public health at Tufts University
in Boston, who has advised the EPA on water quality for some time.
"If you're a young child, there's no particular reason that you
would know you're being poisoned."
In addition, lead can cause miscarriage in pregnant women. In
the 1900s, lead was given to women to induce abortion. Babies also
can absorb lead in the womb, potentially affecting their brain
Although the highest risk is to pregnant women and children,
lead can cause health problems for adults too, such as high blood
pressure, poor kidney function and memory difficulties.
Over recent decades, scientists have discovered that even very
low levels of lead in the body can cause problems, causing doctors
and researchers to agree: no level of lead is safe.
A long-time problem
In addition to the city's problems with lead paint, lead pipes
are in most of Chicago's homes.
"Chicago has had a long history of lead in water problems," says
Edwards. "They probably have more lead pipes than any other city in
the United States."
Homes built before 1986 have what are called lead service
lines--lead pipes leading from the water main to the home,
supplying the tap water. These pipes can rust and degrade, leaching
lead into the water supply.
Chicago officials insist the water is safe, according to federal
government standards. In fact, says Tom Powers, commissioner for
the Chicago Department of Water Management, the department puts
chemical additives in the water shown to reduce the corrosion of
"I have my own kids drink this water. This water is safe by EPA
standards," Powers says.
But the standards are the problem, says Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou,
also a civil engineer at Virginia Tech and founder of Parents for
Nontoxic Alternatives, a group that's been working to reduce lead
levels in D.C.
"The assurances that you have been receiving from your water
utility that say that your water meets or exceeds all federal
safety standards--these assurances in no way should be interpreted
as your water is safe to drink," says Lambrinidou.
Although the city of Chicago's water quality reports say that
lead levels are below regulation levels, a July 2012 study from
U.S. EPA shows that the way the water is being tested--a single
sample taken from the tap--may be missing the high levels of lead
that are actually there.
When the EPA started taking multiple samples of tap water from
the same faucet, they started noticing higher lead levels. While
the first draw samples showed very few high lead levels, with
multiple samples, nearly half of the homes tested had at least one
liter of water over the EPA's limit for lead.
"Unfortunately, there were a good number that were well above
twice the action level," says study author Miguel Del Toral,
regulations manager for EPA region who resides in Chicago, in an
online talk about his study.
"The public might be exposed to some very high lead levels and
they don't know it because [the way we're sampling] is masking
that," says Del Toral.
And even if your home's water supply consistently tests low for
lead, that can change in an instant, according to experts.
In homes with a lead service line, lead can be leaching into the
water fairly consistently, or it can be at low levels and suddenly
spike, like when a small piece of lead rust comes off, launching
the lead levels sky high with no warning, says Edwards.
When this happens, the lead level in a single glass of water
could be enough to poison a child, he says.
"You can collect 10, 20 samples of your water that show pretty
low levels of lead--6 or 7 parts per billion, but then you might
collect another sample where you've got 3,000 parts per billion
lead," Edwards says.
Although city of Chicago water research specialist Andrea Putz
says she wasn't aware of lead levels spiking in Chicago homes
because of sediment chunks, Edwards says if the city wasn't aware
of the problem, it was because they weren't looking.
Modernization makes the problem worse
Since 2008, the city of Chicago has been modernizing its water
system, replacing water mains and pipes that are sometimes more
than 100 years old. The Emanuel administration has stepped up that
effort, vowing to replace 900 miles of water mains in the next 10
years, with 70 miles replaced in 2012 and another 75 in 2013.
Replacing old water pipes seems like it would help, but instead
of replacing the lead pipe that runs from a water main into a home,
lead service lines are being cut and reattached to the water main.
Not only does this leave the lead pipe intact, but it can also
knock loose lead particles that had settled in the old pipes that
can then flow out of your tap, says Edwards.
The recent EPA study found that in 12 of 13 homes where there
had been construction or a disturbance in the water line between
2005 and 2011, there were dangerously high levels of lead in the
water. Those levels can remain high for months or years afterward,
Since the study was conducted, construction on water mains has
more than doubled.
The Chicago Department of Water Management says it is now doing
additional testing on homes, both before and after any disturbance
in the water line, to better understand the problem. They're also
flushing pipes during construction on water mains to reduce risks
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's press office did not respond to repeated
requests for comment on his infrastructure platform and how it may
be impacting the health of the city's children.
Expert: City's advice is incorrect
If the city has done work on the water system in your
neighborhood in the past few years, you've likely gotten a little
pamphlet stuck to your door, informing you about the process and,
if you bother to read to the end, what you can do to avoid problems
with lead in the water.
The problem is, the advice is wrong.
Chicago consumers are advised to flush their pipes just once for
three to five minutes after their water is turned back on following
What the recent EPA study showed was that in order to reduce
lead in the water, consumers would have to flush their taps for
three to five minutes any time their water had been unused for a
length of time, says Edwards.
Flushing for three to five minutes will reduce the problem, says
the EPA, but not eliminate it. And because the infiltration of lead
particles can be random and sudden, Edwards says flushing is
neither practical nor safe.
"If I had a lead pipe, I would never trust the water in terms of
lead just because of these particles that fall off," Edwards says.
"Drinking the water is like a game of Russian roulette."
Powers says the department is considering updating the
information it hands out to consumers, but noted that department's
annual water quality report, distributed yearly to homeowners,
contains similar flushing advice for consumers worried about
"We're always looking to upgrade our literature to protect our
customers," says Powers. "That's something that we're certainly
What can you do?
The greatest risk is to people who live in homes built before
1986, where there's most likely to be a lead service line bringing
water into the home. However, homes built after 1986 can be at risk
too, because brass pipes, plumbing devices and faucets can have
high amounts of lead as well.
"Until relatively recently, you could have fixtures that were 7
percent lead, and they would be labeled 'lead-free,'" says
While flushing the water for three to five minutes can reduce
the lead exposure to you and your children, Edwards says the most
practical thing to do is to get a water filter. Even inexpensive
filters like a Brita or PUR water filter generally do a very good
job of removing lead, although more expensive ones, like reverse
osmosis filters, completely eliminate lead from the water supply,
Powers says he doesn't think using a water filter is necessary,
but doesn't discourage consumers from getting one.
"If people are uncomfortable and they have concerns, they can
use a filter," Powers says.
Edwards believes consumers should be using filtered water to
cook and drink. Cooking with tap water can cause even higher
exposure than drinking the water directly, he says.
"If you're cooking pasta in the tap water, you're using a huge
volume of water and a high flow rate," he says. "Then you pour the
water away and the lead sticks to the food. The net result is
almost the same as drinking that entire volume of water."
Brushing your teeth with tap water? OK, says Edwards. Bathing?
No problem. Lead isn't absorbed through the skin. Dishwashing has
some risk of exposure, but Edwards' studies have shown it's 10
times less than cooking.
Although drinking bottled water may be an option, keep in mind
that bottled water isn't regulated or necessarily filtered, so it
can often contain similar contaminants as tap water, if not
Perhaps the greatest risk is to formula-fed infants whose milk
is made with contaminated tap water.
"The two population groups are most vulnerable are fetuses and
infants dependent on formula, but these are the two groups that
rarely, if ever, get tested for lead in blood," Lambrinidou
And while lead exposure is something that would worry any parent
for their child's future, it's not just about individual kids and
families. Griffiths says this kind of widespread exposure has
serious ramifications for our city as a whole.
"As a societal level, you get whole groups of children who
aren't doing as well in school, kids who don't achieve," Griffiths
says. "If you knock five IQ points off of everybody, that's a big
deal. It's a very profound and unnecessary limitation."
A job for parents
To really get the problem fixed, Lambrinidou says parents need
to get involved and tell government officials to take action both
at the city and national level. That means advocating for increased
testing and consumer education, as well as changing federal
"Usually, the voices at the table who have weight and are
listened to are voices of industry and voices of government, but
rarely the voices of parents who are the most invested in
children's health," she says.
When parents have the motivation to find out the science behind
laws and regulations, they can quickly become as qualified as the
experts to lobby for safer practices, she says.
"We can advocate for research and policy that place our
children's health at the top," Lambrinidou says. "If we don't work
together to get there, our voices will be routinely drowned out by
voices with different priorities and commitments."
What to do with your weekend, delivered every Thursday.
Great deals and chances to win prizes, delivered every Monday.
Exclusive offers from our partners,usually delivered twice a week.
Resources for parents of children with special needs,delivered the second Tuesday each month.