Chicago’s lead-pipe plan needs outreach, acceleration, experts say

A few months before Doris Summerville was planning to open an at-home day care in her Maywood home, she discovered she had a lead service line.

If not for plumbing problems, Summerville might not have found out about the threat.

“We have got to do what we have got to do to be safe, and then for these children, especially the children in my care, I don’t want them growing up and they have all these issues,’’ she said.

Summerville was able to take advantage of LeadCare Cook County, an initiative aimed at helping child care providers address lead in drinking water. She now runs Nana’s House, where she cares for children 6 weeks to 12 years old.

Replacing lead pipes in the Chicago area is a complex process. Even those who know about and qualify for the city’s free lead line replacement programs struggle with red tape, and community organizers and advocates for clean water say the city needs to overcome financial and educational challenges and move more swiftly to implement a plan.

Chicago has the highest number of lead service lines in the nation, with close to 400,000 lead pipes supplying water to the city’s residents. And many homeowners with properties built before 1986 — the year lead pipes were nationally banned — likely have a lead pipe running directly from their home to the nearest water main.

Children are most at risk from lead exposure, which can have harmful effects on their early development. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe blood lead level in children, and any exposure can cause long-term harm.

A recent study published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal found more than two-thirds of children under the age of 6 may be exposed to lead-contaminated water in Chicago.

Deborah Carroll, director of the government finance research center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is part of a research team studying lead levels in Chicago by neighborhood. From her research, Carroll said there are educational barriers to replacing lead pipes.

“One of the biggest challenges with replacing lead service lines is that people don’t know that they have lead in their service lines, or they don’t really have any interest in getting them replaced because there potentially could be some cost burden for the homeowner,” Carroll said.

Water trickles from a lead pipe service line as workers remove and replace it with a copper pipe for a homeowner in the 10100 block of south Green Street in Chicago on May 2, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

To build trust between communities and water providers, the city should prioritize outreach efforts aimed at educating residents on the lead line replacement process, Carroll said.

“A lot of the academic research shows that minority populations are especially distrusting of public water systems,” Carroll said. “And African American individuals have a tendency to consume greater amounts of bottled water as a result of the lack of trust. So that’s an issue.”

Collective action is needed to accelerate the removal of all lead lines, according to Caroline Packenham, the director of water programs at Elevate, which administers LeadCare.

“We all need to come together to figure out what we can do to accelerate lead service line replacement, because the longer we have these pipes in the ground, more generations are going to be exposed to drinking water from, essentially, a lead straw,” Pakenham said.

An equity issue

Summerville said the LeadCare staff helped her test her water for lead, and when it came back showing 2.5 parts per billion (ppb), she added filters to her bathroom and kitchen faucets. In Illinois, all homes with licensed child care operations with children under the age of 6 and built before the year 2000 must take action when lead is detected over 2 ppb.

LeadCare sent contractors to inspect her lead pipe and explain the replacement process. Once the lead pipe was replaced with a new copper one, Summerville said she noticed the water from her tap was clearer and the pressure greatly improved.

“I pray that every house in the world can have this done,” Summerville said. “I still use bottled water for drinking and stuff, but it runs out of the faucet much better. And it’s really clear, you know, something worked.”

LeadCare Cook County is administered by Elevate, a Chicago-based, national nonprofit committed to helping child care providers address lead in drinking water. Elevate has partnered with Cook County to administer the program, which offers free lead service line replacements for home-based and center-based child care facilities in suburban Cook County.

Packenham said the program is funded by the American Rescue Plan Act to address infrastructure investment gaps in suburban Cook County.

“It was really an equity issue. Like you have these standards but there aren’t a lot of finances or resources and support in place to help you when you do find lead in your water,” Pakenham said.