Child care centers are priority for lead water pipe replacement

The children at Ruby Williams' home daycare in Austin have been drinking bottled water for years.

Williams wasn't sure if there were any problems with the tap water in her more than century-old home, but provided store-bought bottles for safety reasons.

In early 2023, the city removed Williams' lead service line at no cost to her, she said, as part of a city program that prioritizes removing the brain-damaging metal pipes from more than 1,500 home-based child care providers.

Williams, who cares for six children ages 4 months to 3 years, still refuses to give the children water from the taps, although she is grateful for the help. Given the city's estimated cost of up to $35,000 for each main service line replacement, it couldn't afford the bill.

This city program aims to replace more than 100 lead pipes from day care centers per year, so it will take well over a decade to complete.

Given the risk to children – most of whom live on the South and West Sides – the time frame for replacing the lead fixtures is unacceptably long, children's advocates say.

“Exposure to lead has serious consequences,” says Caroline Pakenham, director of water programs at the Chicago nonprofit Elevate, “including damage to the developing brain and nervous system.”

City officials tasked with solving the decades-old problem agree.

“For us, it’s always about funding,” said Joel Vieyra, first deputy commissioner at the Ministry of Water Management. “We will clarify funding to ensure we have a comprehensive, accelerated day care program.”

Financing has not yet been clarified and no politicians at the city or state level are offering solutions.

The cost of replacing pipes at child care centers has been covered by a variety of funding sources, including a mix of city, state and federal funds.

Randy Conner, head of the new city's water department, said in a statement that it was a “high priority” to “identify and provide as many resources as possible.”

Despite promises to address the problem, future funding remains uncertain.

Replacing 117 lines at home day care centers cost more than $4 million last year.

While that's a significant amount, the city is spending $40 million a month to address the refugee crisis.

Water bottles, water coolers and filters are now the solutions of choice for home daycare providers.

“We need to join forces and create a more comprehensive plan,” said Maria Del Carmen Macias, a former child care provider who now helps other day care operators with the key issue through the Service Employees International Union. “It’s like a pandemic.”

She said she believes the state has the money to do more to help care providers.

In total, more than 400,000 main lines need to be replaced in Chicago – more than any other city in the country. The city received a $336 million federal loan late last year. But with each home costing an estimated $30,000 to $35,000 to remove lead pipes, that money only goes so far.

Daycare centers are a symbol of a high number of children at risk.

Nearly 6% of Chicago's 2.7 million residents are children under 5, according to U.S. Census data.

In some communities the number of small children is higher.

The proportion of children under 5 is rising to nearly 7% in Austin, a majority-black community of nearly 97,000 residents.

Englewood, also majority black, counts 8% of its more than 24,000 residents under the age of 5.

In Little Village and the surrounding area, the population under age 5 makes up about 6% of the majority Latino community's more than 71,000 residents.

Ruby Williams has been giving bottled mineral water to the children at her daycare center for years. “I felt weird drinking water from the tap,” she said.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun Times

The threat is also real in the rest of Cook County, where cash-strapped suburbs can't help child care operators financially.

Cook County officials are replacing lead pipes in home day care centers using federal funding in collaboration with Elevate.

An estimated 550 home daycare centers in suburban Cook County will need to replace their lead pipes.

Cook County received $15 million from the American Rescue Plan, a federal law passed in 2021 to stimulate the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. This funding will help replace lead pipes at daycare centers and provide technical assistance to communities that need to replace all lead pipes by the end of 2026.

The help comes as a relief to those child care providers who use filters to remove lead from water, an expensive strategy.

“I spent more money on these filters — at least $50 to $60 each time, every two to three months,” said Emma Jefferson, who cares for 16 children at her Calumet City home and was supported by the county program.

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