Water runs from a tap in the West Loop. City representatives argue that Chicago is compliant with standards set by the EPA, but do not deny the presence of lead in municipal drinking water. Credit: (Mackenzie Tatananni/Medill Reports)

Elevate, a Chicago-based nonprofit, continues its work to deliver lead-free water to children in underserved communities. The organization tackles elevated lead levels in municipal drinking water with the highest levels occurring in communities of color. Water levels in Chicago-area homes must meet the Environmental Protection Agency action level of 15 parts of lead per billion parts of water. Under this regulation, a public water system must reduce the amount of lead if more than 10% of water samples test over 15 ppb. However, the EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledge that there is “no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood.”

“Our goal is to make sure that everyone, regardless of income or background, has access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water,” said Patrick MacRoy, principal director for Single Family and Toxics Reduction Programs at Elevate.

Previously, MacRoy worked for the City of Chicago Department of Public Health, running the Lead Poisoning Prevention program.

“Back then, the health department was solely focused on lead in paint [in old buildings]. I do regret that we didn’t take water more seriously at the time,” said MacRoy. “Lead has always been an underappreciated source of harm to children.”

In his current position, MacRoy coordinates a team that assists day cares. “One program is called Lead Care Illinois, which is funded through the state with some federal money, that provides testing and follow-up for home-based day cares so they can meet their licensing requirements to have their water tested for lead and understand the results,” he said.

According to MacRoy, the goal is not only to identify the presence of lead, but to implement permanent solutions.

“In Chicago, we have a companion program that expands on that by doing interior plumbing work. So, we have plumbers actually go out, assess the situation, and try to figure out how we can reduce the lead,” MacRoy said.

Solutions include fixture changes, corrections to plumbing, or the installation of fixed water filters.

By contrast, the City of Chicago’s Lead Service Line Replacement Program only addresses utility lines that traverse city streets and sidewalks to connect to a water main. The program does not cover plumbing work within the walls of homes.

If individuals qualify for a free service line replacement, City-elected contractors replace the existing service line with a line made of copper.

Elevate’s lead testing program services the entire state of Illinois, while the companion program is limited to the City of Chicago. The nonprofit has so far completed a handful of projects at day cares on the South Side.

Beyond plumbing work to eliminate lead contamination from drinking water, Elevate works on other solutions including air sealing and insulation installment within homes. Credit: (Photo courtesy of Elevate)

“As part of the licensing requirements with DCSS (Department of Child Support Services), the law was changed a while ago to require lead in water testing and to set one of the stricter standards in the country,” said McRoy.

Standards apply to licensed day care homes, day care centers and group day care homes serving children under 6 years old and housed in a building constructed on or before January 1, 2000. Day cares are required to complete safety training and develop a mitigation plan for drinking water sources that test at 2.01 parts per billion or higher.

Children less than 6 years old are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, as their bodies are rapidly developing and more susceptible to absorbing lead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 2.01 ppb figure is adjusted specifically for children in daycare and differs from city’s standard for drinking water in homes.

“Municipal water supplies are held to the standard of 15 parts per billion per the U.S. EPA Lead and Copper Rule,” said Megan Vidis, spokeswoman for the City of Chicago Department of Water Management in an email statement.

“Any home that tests over 15 parts per billion receives a free follow-up visit from a DWM team consisting of an electrician, plumber and sanitary engineer to make custom recommendations about mitigating lead levels,” Vidis said.

However, this measure is over seven times the limit for children under 6 years old, whose development is seriously imperiled by lead exposure. Effects include slowed development, learning problems, and issues with hearing and speech.

The CDC notes that children from low-income households and those living in homes built before 1978 face the greatest risk.

Beyond plumbing work to eliminate lead contamination from drinking water, Elevate works on other solutions including air sealing and insulation installment within homes. Credit: (Photo courtesy of Elevate)

The impact of lead contamination is felt disproportionately in communities of color across Chicago. An independent analysis of citywide testing results by journalists from The Guardian found that Black and Hispanic communities bear the brunt of the issue.

“We’ve known about the problem of lead for decades and have, as a society, invested relatively little to fix it. A large reason why we haven’t is because it has disproportionately impacted communities of color,” MacRoy said.

This historical discrimination has lasting effects like those witnessed at Metro Achievement Center, an all-female after-school program in West Loop. Students travel from West and South Side Chicago to attend.

Lucy Cavanagh, program manager for Metro’s high school program, has witnessed students’ distrust in water sources firsthand.

“When I tell students to grab a glass of water from the faucet, they say they prefer it from a filtered place,” said Cavanagh. “I didn’t think much of it, but they’re used to their water sources being unreliable.”

While adolescents are most susceptible to the adverse effects of lead on the brain and nervous system, damage does not stop there. According to the World Health Organization, long-term exposure in adults can increase the likelihood of high blood pressure and kidney damage.

Metro has installed filtered water fountains to ensure students’ safety.

“We aim to provide a more comfortable space, a space with reliable Internet, a place where people are available to help them,” Cavanagh said.

Often this means a space more secure than home, where students are able to escape environmental and economic disparities.

Only 280 homeowners have had a lead service line replaced through city-sponsored programs out of an estimated 390,000 lead service lines, according to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times.

To compensate for the lack of progress, a number of replacements have been done through a program paid for entirely by homeowners, costing upwards of $15,000 per home.

Many qualifying homeowners live in the very communities that Metro students hail from.

“Given how I’ve seen that Chicago is run, I’m not surprised that they’re dropping the ball in this area, too,” Cavanagh said.

This sentiment is echoed by experts at Elevate, who hope to provide solutions.

“Progress addressing lead service lines has been frustratingly slow,” MacRoy said. “Hopefully in the near future, we are going to be working on a new program in suburban Cook [County] to do lead service line replacement for daycares and other high-risk facilities.”

Mackenzie Tatananni is a contributor and student at Northwestern University. This content is made possible through the Chicago Reporter collaborative with the Graduate Science Journalism Medill School...

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