In the wake of media reports about the number of homes in Chicago that have elevated levels of lead in their tap water after the city installed new water meters, a public meeting was held at Morgan Park High School on March 6.
Local residents emotionally demanded answers from city officials and wondered what could be done to safeguard their homes—many of them over a century old—and how they could keep their water bills from rising.
Officials insisted that Chicago tap water is safe, and that progress is being made to reduce lead levels further. They also stressed that a water meter will result in lower water bills.
Late in the meeting, a woman said she is being forced to choose her poison—not have a meter and then pay more, or install a meter and risk a higher lead level in her water.
Julie Morita, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, was adamant that no one should be alarmed.
“Progress is being made,” Morita said. “This is not [Flint, Mich.] … We’re not seeing huge numbers of people with more levels [of lead]. I don’t want you to panic about that. But, we are taking this very seriously.”
Also joining Morita at the meeting attended by about 65 people were Chicago Department of Water Commissioner Randy Conner and 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea.
Morita said that blood lead levels have dropped substantially since 1978—when lead-based paint was outlawed—and Conner said the city has been conducting a water feasibility study since 2016, as well as a lead service-line replacement feasibility report.
According to experts, lead can cause serious damage to organs, including the brain. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the minimum allowable level is 15 parts per billion.
According to the city, in testing lead levels since 2016, residents in the 19th Ward have requested 3,016 kits, and 694 were returned for analysis.
About 7 percent of the returned kits had lead levels over 15 parts per billion, about 1 percent higher than citywide results.
Since 2001, 8,467 homes had installed water meters in the 19th Ward. Of the 24 that were part of the water feasibility study, three had lead levels of over 15 parts per billion.
That 12.5-percent result is higher than the 7.8-percent level citywide.
According to media reports last November, testing of Chicago homes with water meters found that about 1 in 5 had lead in their water above the EPA limit.
Conner, who has a meter, said it could not be determined if the meters are to blame, claiming that even new pipes made of copper can contain lead, as can faucets. He also said the city uses orthophosphate, a water-treatment chemical, to help prevent lead in older pipes from leaching into the water system.
Lead pipes were installed in homes until 1986, city officials said; they are a dull gray color and are soft and, when scratched, the surface reveals a shiny silver metal.
To minimize the amount of lead in water, officials said, residents should flush their systems every six hours, whether it’s taking a shower or doing dishes.
They also said free water filters are available, and requests in the 19th Ward have been more frequent than those in the city as a whole.
However, attendees who said they live in century-old homes weren’t satisfied with some recommendations. A woman from Beverly said a major overhaul is needed in the water system.
“We need new mains. We all know that,” she said. “We’re talking around the problem. The elephant in the room is these ancient mains.”
City officials have promoted installing meters through the MeterSave program, and they said the devices will save residents’ money because their bills will be based on water consumption, instead of building size, lot size and the number of water fixtures.
Homeowners in single-family homes and two-flats are eligible for water meters. According to the city, they receive a seven-year guarantee that their water bill will be not be higher than it was before installation of the meter.
The city claimed that a home’s average 2017 monthly bill would have dropped, for example, from $78.15 to $58.90; Conner said his bill has been reduced even lower.
David Dewar, who challenged O’Shea in the recent municipal election, said he spoke on behalf of the Mt. Greenwood Safety Committee, a group of residents seeking answers to the large number of diagnoses of pediatric cancer in the community. He said water samples in Mt. Greenwood have been found to be discolored.
Dewar asked if O’Shea would support an investigation of lead levels being conducted by a firm independent of the city or through private funding.
O’Shea said his home does not have a water meter, and the cost of an independent investigation would be “exhorbitant” and would likely need to be funded through new taxes.
He urged anyone with concerns about lead levels in tap water to contact his office, and O’Shea said he trusts the city’s data on lead levels.
“This isn’t a Russian conspiracy, folks,” he said. “This is a public-safety hazard that we’re trying to get answers to.”
For more information, visit the website at chicagowaterquality.org.