Chicago’s lead pipe problem

When Congress banned the installation of new lead pipes in 1986, Chicago was the only city that still required their use.
Credit: Courtesy of Chicago Public Library Digital Collections

In July 2021, Erika Chavez helped her mother fill out a lengthy application for the Equity Lead Service Line Replacement program. The program, offered through the Chicago Department of Water Management (DWM), replaces lead service lines for low-income homeowners at no cost that could otherwise cost over $16,000. When Chavez didn't hear from the program for a year, she emailed them asking for an update and a city employee said her application was still under review. Finally, in February 2023, the city approved Chavez's mother's participation in the program. The lead service line replacement was completed in May of this year.

Chavez's story is merely a microcosm of what Chicago will face in the coming years and decades as the city grapples with the legacy of lead pipes laid in the 20th century.

Read more: How to test your water for lead

A limited budget is putting a strain on the DWM as it must replace over 400,000 lead service lines in Chicago. Lack of funding means only a small number of service lines are replaced each year, although that number has increased since former Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration implemented the Equity Lead Service Line Replacement program. The city has set a goal of replacing 40,000 service lines by 2027, but as of December 2023, officials have replaced only 3,777.

Lead, a heavy metal, was widely used in plumbing in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries due to its low corrosion rate, malleability, and durability. Throughout the 20th century, scientific studies confirmed that lead is a highly toxic material, with symptoms including cardiovascular problems, reproductive difficulties, reduced cognitive abilities, and learning disabilities such as ADHD. As knowledge of its toxicity spread, it was phased out in most parts of the country.

Although doctors and health officials had known since at least the 19th century that lead in drinking water was toxic, advocates working on behalf of the Lead Industries Association (LIA) pressured city and state officials across the country to use lead as the preferred material for drinking water pipes. LIA lobbyists successfully persuaded the plumbers' union in Chicago to support lead as the only material for utility pipes, which eventually led the city to mandate that all utility pipes be made of lead in the early 1900s.

As the Guardian reported, Stephen Bailey, the head of Chicago's plumbers' union, was a close confidant of Mayor Richard J. Daley. The plumbers' union is suspected of having persuaded the city to require lead pipes as the standard for utility lines.

In 1986, Congress banned the installation of new lead pipes. Other cities still used lead pipes in 1986, but Chicago was the only city that still mandated their use at that time. In contrast, New York City stopped installing lead service lines in 1961, and Madison, Wisconsin, stopped installing new lead service lines in 1928.

Madison was once again ahead of its time when it became the first municipality to undertake a citywide initiative to remove all lead pipes in 2000. That effort lasted more than a decade. Newark, New Jersey, has been hailed as the gold standard for lead service line replacement programs in recent years. After struggling with high lead levels in the water, Newark managed to replace 23,000 service lines in less than three years.

Chicago's service lines, which run from private homes to a water main in the middle of the street, are half owned by the city and half by the property owner. A shutoff valve placed in the middle separates the private and public sides. Before 2022, home renovators or city contractors working on water lines would occasionally replace only half of a service line, in some cases causing lead levels in the water to rise. An Illinois state law that took effect in 2022 banned this practice and now requires that when a lead service line is replaced, the entire line must be replaced.

In Chicago, there are approximately 400,000 lead service lines installed throughout the city. Credit: Courtesy of Chicago Public Library Digital Collections

In November, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled proposed changes to its lead and copper regulations. One major change would require most water systems to replace lead pipes within 10 years. The original 1991 lead and copper regulations significantly tightened regulations on lead pipes but did not require their replacement. The proposed new regulations would not apply to Chicago because replacing 400,000 pipes within 10 years is neither budget- nor personnel-feasible. Current estimates suggest that under the new regulations, Chicago would have four decades to replace all of its lead pipes. “The city is not moving fast enough, and we need to bring together the best minds,” says Rachel Havrelock, director of the Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago. “Forty years is not acceptable.”

Until recently, Chicago homeowners who wanted to replace a lead service line at their own expense had to pay thousands of dollars in building permit fees to rip up the sidewalk, adding costs to an already costly repair. The city now waives up to $5,000 in permit fees for homeowners who replace both their and the city's half of the service line out of their own pocket. But that waiver comes in the form of a tax credit deducted at the end of the year, rather than as an upfront savings, according to one homeowner who recently decided to replace his service line as part of a renovation.

Although replacing lead pipes in Chicago and across the country will require enormous resources, the expected savings in health care costs are well worth the price. According to Ronnie Levin, associate professor of environmental health at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, and Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard, replacing lead pipes would save the United States $9 billion annually.

Late last year, the EPA awarded Chicago a $336 million loan to replace 30,000 lead pipes. The funds will be distributed over four years, but Chicago has yet to receive any of them. In May, the EPA awarded the state another $240 million to replace lead pipes statewide, though it's not yet clear how much of that will be allocated to Chicago.

As part of President Joe Biden's “Investing in America” ​​program, the EPA has allocated $15 billion to replace lead pipes nationwide. That should be enough to cover the replacement costs in Chicago alone, a DWM spokesperson says.

Credit: Courtesy of the Chicago Public Library Digital Collection

Current EPA policy on lead and copper pipes requires municipal water plants to conduct corrosion protection tests if a water source has lead levels above 15 parts per billion (ppb), known as the lead action limit. The proposed policy changes would tighten the standard slightly to 10 ppb. But some experts — including Benjamin Huỳnh, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University — believe that level is not strict enough. Huynh suggests 5 ppb as a better standard, the same standard that applies to bottled water.

Thanks to corrosion control measures implemented by water companies, it is possible to maintain a level of 10 ppb or less in water that passes through lead pipes. Water companies introduce phosphates into the water supply, which flow through the water system and coat the inside of the lead pipes. The coating protects against corrosion and creates a protective layer between the lead and the water. “The science of corrosion control and testing could well justify a level lower than 10,” Levin says.

The EPA sets a lead limit, but no more specific values, such as a maximum level of contamination, because “the water utilities said they couldn't give a uniform value because the water pipes in different people's homes are different,” Levin said.

While scientists say no lead levels are safe for consumption, the general assumption is that lead will be present in the water. It's far from an ideal scenario, but that's because “it's a trade-off,” Levin says.

Lead-Safe Chicago, a city program, offers Chicago residents a free water test kit to test their water for lead. If the test shows lead levels of 15 ppb or more, the city sends a plumber, electrician and sanitation worker to perform further testing at no charge. If the homeowner qualifies for the equity-based program, they will receive a free replacement line. However, if further testing shows the lead service line needs to be replaced and the homeowner does not qualify for one of the city's equity-based programs, the homeowner must pay for the line replacement out of pocket.

While the equity-based program is a first step toward replacing utility lines for low-income homeowners, Lead-Safe Chicago's website notes that budget constraints may put applications on hold until 2025. Chavez herself wishes the application process for the equity-based program were easier to manage. “Basically, they don't even ask you for a DNA sample,” she says.

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