Tribune investigation: City fails to warn Chicagoans about lead risks in tap water

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CHICAGO -- A front-page Chicago Tribune investigation outlines potential dangers and oversights in the city's water management department.

Tribune Reporter Michael Hawthorne looked into the city's aging infrastructure -- as water mains are replaced throughout the city, the service lines running from the street to homes are often still made from lead.

To read the full Tribune investigation, go here. 

In an email to WGN Monday afternoon, the city sent a detailed response, which read:

Chicago water is safe and pure, exceeding all standards set by the USEPA, the Illinois EPA and the drinking water industry.

Further, DWM's water testing protocol adheres to federal guidelines; it would be premature and inappropriate for the city to change its testing guidelines without official federal guidance and instruction. To protect Chicago residents, the Department of Water Management (DWM) has an aggressive anti-corrosion program in which phosphate forms a coating on lead pipes, preventing lead from leaching into the water. DWM continually monitors water quality and performs testing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Additionally, any resident that has concerns about their water quality can call 311 to request additional, free testing be performed at their address.

The Chicago Tribune article contained a number of assertions and false conclusions; those claims are debunked below.

Claim one: An EPA study found “alarming levels” of lead can flow from household faucets for years after construction work that disrupts water service lines.

FACT: This 2014 EPA study was conducted in partnership with the city’s Department of Water Management to help determine the best methods to measure lead levels in water – it was not a study to determine the safety/lead levels of Chicago water. Some have taken information from the study to suggest that work done on consumers’ lead pipes might disturb the phosphate coating and allow lead to enter the water. Those conclusions are far from scientifically established; the study looked at a very small sample of houses and did not measure lead levels before and after the pipe interference.

Claim two: The city’s testing protocols, based on federal rules, are likely to miss high concentrations of lead in drinking water.

FACT: The testing protocol used by DWM is set by the US EPA for the entire country; Chicago’s DWM is not allowed to vary from this established federal testing protocol. DWM's water testing
protocol adheres to federal guidelines; it would be premature and inappropriate for the city to change its testing guidelines without official federal guidance and instruction. We are working with the USEPA as it re-evaluates its lead and copper rule, which may change the way the industry tests for lead levels in water. We will fully comply with any new protocols established by the USEPA.

Claim three: The City doesn’t fully and adequately warn residents about the potential lead hazards posed by the nearby installation of new water mains.

FACT: During water main construction, DWM recommends that residents flush their system to remove the possibility of bacteria, chemicals and other contaminants. For this reason, DWM does not focus only on possible lead, but on the importance of flushing in general. The flushing protocol is an approved methodology as advised by USEPA and referenced in the article.

Claim four: Instead of cautioning Chicagoans they could be exposed to a potent neurotoxin in their drinking water, top city officials have repeatedly assured elected officials and residents there is nothing to worry about.

 

FACT: To ensure that lead and other metals do not leach in to the water, blended phosphate is used as part of DWM’s corrosion control program. The phosphate forms a coating on the inside of all plumbing and keeps the water from coming into direct contact with lead and any other metals.

Chicago is not Flint, Michigan. Flint suffered a complete lack of any corrosion control within their water system. In contrast, DWM has a very successful corrosion control system in place and has been a national leader in the field of lead research. The corrosion control performed by DWM reaches every customer served by the DWM water system.

Claim five: Annual "consumer confidence" reports sent to homeowners don't mention potential lead hazards. In a note accompanying the reports, Emanuel says it is crucial to replace leaky water mains and improve conservation efforts "to continue our city's reputation for high quality, good- tasting water."

FACT: This statement is inaccurate. DWM has long echoed the USEPA in asking residents to flush their service lines prior to use after a long period of nonuse. This specific language is included and is, in fact, required by the USEPA. This is evident both on the USEPA’s website and the Consumer Confidence Report issued to every household by DWM. DWM has advised residents to flush their service lines after a new water main installation. In the installation of a meter, DWM actually performs the flushing for the resident. As a precaution, we have long advised residents to run their water for a few minutes to flush their pipes if water hasn’t been used for a period of a few hours. Residents can easily flush the system by taking a shower or flushing the toilet.

Claim six: The city conducts insufficient testing, as the federal rule requires only 50 homes be tested every three years in Chicago. Further, only the first liter of water drawn in the morning is tested, though the study found that high levels of lead can flow through taps for several minutes after the first liter is drawn.

FACT: The number of sample sites, how the samples are drawn and the frequency of testing is set by the US EPA, and Chicago meets those standards. The 2014 EPA study was conducted in partnership with the city’s Department of Water Management to help determine the best methods to measure lead levels in water – it was not a study to determine the safety/lead levels of Chicago water. It would be premature and inappropriate for the city to change its testing guidelines without official federal guidance and instruction, and cannot deviate from the federal testing requirements. However, DWM is actively engaged in the research being done to examine new methods for sampling.

Claim seven: Since October, the department has been sending homeowners a two-page handout before water mains are replaced that is missing any reference to lead. An earlier version referred to "lead particulates" rather than just "particulates." But it was buried in a longer handout.

FACT: During water main construction, flushing is recommended to remove the possibility of bacteria, chemicals and other contaminants. For this reason, DWM does not focus only on possible lead, but on the importance of flushing in general. The flushing protocol is an approved methodology as advised by USEPA and referenced in the article.

Claim eight: A report issued by EPA advisors concluded the current rule masks widespread but little known threats to public health. In a separate report, a utility trade group said that if cities tested accurately, up to 96 million Americans could be drinking lead-contaminated water.

FACT: DWM and the Chicago Department of Health have jointly investigated the presence of lead in the home and in drinking water. To date, the data does not support the theory that water is the source or

cause of elevated lead blood levels in children in Chicago.

Claim nine: The only Chicagoans who receive routine testing for the presence of lead are city workers, mostly located on the far Northwest and Southwest sides.

FACT: DWM has a successful corrosion control program that ensures that lead and other metals do not leach into the water. Since the early 1990s, DWM has had used an USEPA approved Blended Phosphate since the early 1990s that reaches all residents, regardless of neighborhood, including the suburban customers who get their water from DWM. The phosphate forms a coating on the inside of all plumbing and keeps the water from coming into direct contact with lead and any other metals. In fact, Chicago’s corrosion control has been so successful, the EPA has placed the city on a reduced monitoring program.

For testing results to be accurate, sample points need to remain consistent, which is why the same locations are tested. The Northwest, West and Southwest sides of Chicago have the greatest number of single family homes in Chicago that also have the greatest possibility of having a lead service line, which is why the testing locations are in these locations.