700K People In Illinois Are Drinking Lead Contaminate Water. 200 Water Systems affected.
Alarmed by chronic problems with lead-contaminated water in downstate Galesburg, federal officials are urging local officials to provide bottled water or filters to residents where testing at household taps found high levels of the toxic metal.
Though the small Knox County city stands out for repeatedly exceeding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lead standards, a Tribune analysis of state data has identified about 170 other public water systems in Illinois — serving about 700,000 people in all — that had test results that exceeded federal standards during at least one year since 2004.
In the Chicago region, nine water systems exceeded the EPA standard at least twice during the same time period, the Tribune found, including Berwyn and Forest View in Cook County, York Township in DuPage County, and Barrington and Volo in Lake County.
Testing by those water systems found more than 15 parts per billion of lead in the tap water of at least 10 percent of the homes tested, highlighting the lingering danger from lead pipes and plumbing installed during the past century.
Drinking water typically is lead-free when it leaves a treatment plant but can be contaminated as it passes through or stagnates in lead service lines that connect homes to water mains, as well as lead plumbing inside homes. The hazards are widespread in Illinois, which has a large number of older homes and more lead service lines than any other state.
Officials at water systems that have exceeded the EPA standard said they informed residents of lead risks and adjusted corrosion-fighting treatments intended to prevent lead from leaching out of pipes. But local officials typically are not required to immediately notify homeowners or take other action unless their water system exceeds the standard during a full testing cycle, and some are allowed to test over a three-year period.
As a result, many water systems can tell consumers in annual notices that their water is safe, even if the results for that year exceed the federal standard or high levels are found in individual homes.
To provide a more detailed picture of residents’ potential exposure, the Tribune analyzed lead results by calendar year. The EPA’s procedures involve identifying the 90th percentile for the test scores and comparing that figure with the standard of 15 parts per billion. To calculate the 90th percentile, the Tribune used a common mathematical formula that allowed for a consistent comparison. The EPA directs officials to use one of several other methods that may produce different results.
Criticized for responding too slowly in Flint, Mich., the EPA is now pressuring states to test more frequently and widely for lead in tap water, dramatically expand consumer warnings and consider the costly, time-consuming process of removing lead service lines.
“The public needs to know that lead can appear at any time in any house with lead plumbing,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech researcher who served on an EPA advisory panel that last year called for an overhaul of the agency’s regulations. “This hazard is totally preventable, but currently we have a situation where the regulatory scheme for water utilities fails to match the science about what lead can do to us.”
Lead levels can vary widely in communities and even within individual homes. The EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion, spelled out in the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, was intended to flag widespread corrosion problems in a community’s lead pipes and plumbing. Rather than basing the standard on the health hazards posed by lead, regulators chose the limit largely because at the time they thought most water systems could easily meet it.
Today the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is no safe level of exposure to lead. Small doses can permanently damage a child’s brain; adults can suffer high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart-related death.
EPA officials said they singled out Galesburg — about 150 miles southwest of Chicago — because the city has repeatedly exceeded the federal lead standard and Knox County has a higher rate of childhood lead poisoning than the rest of Illinois. Any home where lead levels are found to exceed 15 parts per billion should receive bottled water or filters from the city, the EPA said.
Yet during the past five years, the Tribune analysis found, more individual homes tested above 15 parts per billion in west suburban Berwyn and south suburban Calumet City than in Galesburg. Nearly 400 Illinois water systems, including Chicago, have found at least one home with levels that high since 2011.
Significantly higher lead levels have been found in scores of homes statewide. One in every 10 water systems found lead levels exceeding 40 parts per billion in at least one home between 2011 and 2015. On its website, the EPA once described that amount as an “imminent and substantial threat to the health of children and pregnant women.”
At one home in Lake Zurich in Lake County, testing in 2011 found a staggering 2,340 parts per billion. Another test that year in Berwyn came back at 1,840 parts per billion.
Other water systems that have reported finding lead levels higher than 40 since 2011 include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet and the Illinois Youth Center near St. Charles.
Removing lead service lines would help fix the problem, but most officials are deterred by the high cost of a replacement program and legal questions about who should pay. Depending on local laws, the pipes may be considered private property or jointly owned by the water system and homeowners.
Barrington, which the Tribune found exceeded the federal lead standard twice during the mid-2000s, replaced some service lines between 2002 and 2008, then stopped after testing found the water system was within the regulatory limit. High levels of lead have been found in some homes since then.
“Is there a concern? Yeah,” said Dave Schmidt, assistant public works director in Barrington. “Is the ideal thing to be done to remove lead services? Without question, that’s the best thing that can happen. But it’s the homeowner’s decision. There’s costs with that.”
In Berwyn, where the water system exceeded the federal action level in 2011 and 2014, officials said residents were notified in three mailings. “We’re in compliance now, but we still tell people to think about replacing their lead service,” said Bob Schiller, the city’s public works director.
Responding to the Tribune’s findings after publication, officials in Forest View emphasized that according to the EPA’s method of identifying the 90th percentile the village had not exceeded federal standards.
“At no time during the last four test cycles did Forest View’s 90th percentile exceed 15 parts per billion, nor was Forest View above the EPA action level,” village administrators wrote, adding: “The presence of lead in drinking water can be attributed to lead service lines, the presence of lead solder or brass faucets and valves that may contain lead, all of which is the homeowner’s responsibility.”
Officials in Calumet City and Volo could not be reached for comment. The York Township system, which serves a small subdivision, was operated by a defunct private company during the years it exceeded the action level.
In Lake Zurich, the significantly high level of lead found in one home in 2011 caught officials by surprise. It turned out the homeowner had collected a water sample from a little-used bathroom faucet made of leaded brass, said Steve Schmitt, the village’s utilities director.
“We have sampled that same home several times before and after that and never found a problem,” Schmitt said. “To me it shows that if you have an older home, you are going to have a problem with lead at some point.”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said the Tribune analysis highlights the need to upgrade the state’s aging water infrastructure. The Illinois Democrat, along with other lawmakers from both parties, has criticized the EPA’s response in Flint and urged the agency to improve its oversight of all local water systems.
“Though we are a long way from Flint, there is cause for concern,” Durbin said in a statement. “Federal, state and local agencies need to be on the same page when it comes to testing and we need to do it more frequently.”
One change the EPA is considering would establish a “household action level” that requires immediate intervention at homes with worrisome levels of lead in tap water.
Ongoing studies in Flint could prompt more stringent communitywide standards. The World Health Organization says lead levels should be limited to no more than 10 parts per billion in 10 percent of homes tested. Some researchers think the acceptable limit should be as low as 5 parts per billion.
“We are learning a lot from Flint and that’s informing what we are doing everywhere else,” said Robert Kaplan, the EPA’s acting regional administrator. “The agency recognizes we need a systematic overhaul, but the question is what should be done in the interim.”
Any home built before 1986 could have a lead service line. To reduce the risk of exposure, most water systems add anti-corrosive chemicals that build up a protective coating inside the pipes. Flint officials stopped adding the treatment in an ill-fated attempt to cut costs, exposing thousands of residents while telling them nothing was wrong.
After an independent panel found that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder‘s administration was largely responsible for the Flint disaster, the governor recently unveiled plans to adopt a more stringent standard for lead in water, require blood tests for the residents of any home where lead levels exceed 40 parts per billion and replace every lead service line in Michigan within the next decade.
In Illinois, the state EPA plans to begin requiring water systems to advise anyone with a lead test exceeding 15 parts per billion to flush their taps after water hasn’t been used for several hours and to consider buying a filter.
Water systems also will be required to inform homeowners about the benefits of replacing lead service lines, in particular at homes where chronically high levels are found. The University of Illinois and other institutions will be required to post public notices.
The city of Chicago has not exceeded the lead action level since 1992, despite having more lead service lines than any other U.S. municipality. The Tribune reported in February that Chicago, which checks 50 homes every three years, rarely tests drinking water in parts of the city where childhood lead poisoning is a problem.
A 2013 EPA study conducted in Chicago found that street work and plumbing repairs can disrupt the protective coating inside lead pipes and cause alarming levels of lead to leach from service lines. The highest levels found by EPA researchers were in homes where the water main had been replaced under the street outside — work that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is speeding up throughout Chicago to overhaul an aging, leaky water system.
The EPA study also highlighted serious problems with testing protocols that require local utilities to measure lead levels in just the first liter of water drawn at a home. High levels can flow through taps for several minutes after that, the study found, meaning official testing likely misses spikes of lead in drinking water at some homes.
Lead-contaminated water doesn’t necessarily look or smell strange either, as it did in Flint for more than a year.
In Galesburg, local officials said they already have distributed filters to homes with high levels of lead in tap water. They said they have repeatedly tweaked anti-corrosion treatment over the years, replaced lead service lines in about two-thirds of the city and cautioned residents about potential health risks. Replacing the rest of the city’s service lines is estimated to cost $10 million.
“Our goal is to reduce these levels and follow all the EPA rules,” Galesburg Mayor John Pritchard said. “But the federal government needs to decide what is proper and what isn’t. And recognize that at the local level we have to balance these requirements with being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
High rates of childhood lead poisoning in the Galesburg area can be traced mostly to crumbling lead-based paint, a key source of exposure in older homes. The city’s water testing shows that paint isn’t the only cause for concern, but the variability in the results makes it difficult to predict whether high levels of lead will flow through a particular tap.
When Galesburg workers first drew a sample from Rick Danielson’s home in September, the test came back at 7.9 parts per billion. Another sample drawn in April came back at 33 parts per billion, more than twice the federal standard.
“If we still had small kids at home we would be very concerned,” said Danielson, a retired telephone company executive who was one of the first Galesburg homeowners to receive a water filter from the city. “Like a lot of other old, well-established cities, we’ve got a lead problem. It’s time to get together and figure out how we can fix it.”
Added to this story since its original publication May 12 are a paragraph describing how the Tribune calculated the 90th percentile for a water system’s test scores, as well as the response of Forest View officials.
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