Illinois Should Lead on Getting the Lead Out of Our Water

Governor Pritzker’s speech missed an opportunity to outline a plan to protect Illinois children.

Liyah Watkins, 5, filling a glass of water in the kitchen sink at her home in Washington, DC.
Credit: Dee Dwyer for NRDC

This month, President Biden gave his State of the Union address and underscored the administration’s commitment to getting the lead pipes out in 10 years. After decades of disinvestment in water infrastructure, it was promising to hear the president double down on his commitment to ensure that our drinking water is safe. 

His mention of lead in water made me excited for the possibility of Illinois Governor JB Pritzker discussing lead service line replacements in his State of the State and FY 2024 budget address. In 2021, the governor signed the Lead Service Line Notification Act—mandating the replacement of lead service lines in Illinois. In signing this bill, he took a crucial and meaningful step in addressing the state’s lead in drinking water issues. During his State of the State address, the governor touted the state’s fiscal progress and notable investments in areas like early childhood education and public health infrastructure. However, there was no mention of lead service line replacement. 

In the FY2024 capital budget, $10 million in funding has been allocated to help communities complete their lead service line inventories—a requirement outlined in the Lead Service Line and Notification Act. Additionally, the state has appropriated more than $200 million (partially with federal funding) for lead service line replacements. This was a missed opportunity to build momentum around the Lead Service Line Notification Act, publicly name lead service line replacements as a key priority for his administration, and outline a plan to remove lead pipes in an equitable and efficient manner. 

After discussing his proposed investments in early childhood education, Governor Pritzker stated how they “will make our state the best place in the nation to raise young children.” I applaud the governor’s commitment to setting our children up for future success, but as I think about early childhood development, one of the most important steps we can take today for Illinois residents, particularly our kids, is getting the lead out of our drinking water. Illinois has the most lead service lines of any state, and young children are particularly susceptible to health complications as a result of lead exposure. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children are especially susceptible to brain and nervous system damage, and learning and behavioral problems from lead exposure. If we prioritized lead service line replacement alongside investments in early childhood education, children across the state could be their best selves at school with one less health concern on their horizon.  

Further, not only is lead service line replacement the right thing to do, the short- and long-term public health benefits should not be overlooked. Local grassroots organizations like Bridges // Puentes and the Southeast Environmental Task Force are ringing the alarm about high levels of lead in South Chicago homes. Recently, a home tested at 1,100 parts per billion (ppb), which is 73 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 15 ppb “action level.” Unfortunately, this is a reality for many Black and brown communities since people of color in Illinois are up to twice as likely as White Illinoisans to live in communities where nearly all of the state’s lead service lines are located.

As the governor shared his vision for a thriving public health infrastructure, I couldn’t help but think how lead service line replacements could protect the health and safety of our most impacted residents, and lift a burden from public health officials in responding to physical and mental complications associated with lead. Whether it’s early childhood education or public health infrastructure, prioritizing lead service line replacements will complement the work needed to put our state on a path of health and wellness. 

Although lead in water didn’t receive a mention in this year’s State of the State, it is imperative that the administration remains steadfast in tackling this environmental justice issue head on. It is imperative that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency does everything it can to ensure the equitable distribution of funds to replace lead service lines in communities that are most affected by lead contamination in drinking water. Other states have provided a blueprint on how to get it done; it’s on us to follow suit in Illinois.

Chicago has more lead service lines than any city in the country.

Urge Mayor Johnson to replace Chicago’s toxic lead service lines and protect residents!

Urge Mayor Johnson to replace Chicago’s lead service lines and protect residents!

Chicago has more lead service lines than any city in the country—and there is no safe level of lead exposure. The longer Chicagoans wait for lead service lines to be replaced, the more families could be exposed to lead contamination and face life-threatening health risks.
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