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, epa.gov/Region5/water/chicagoserviceline.
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 service line.
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 substantially.
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 unknowing families.
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 development.
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 lead pipes.
"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, says Edwards.
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 for consumers.
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 renovation work.
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 lead.
"We're always looking to upgrade our literature to protect our customers," says Powers. "That's something that we're certainly looking at."
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 Griffiths.
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, he says.
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 more.
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 says.
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 regulations.
"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."
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