We Have No More Time to Waste on Chicagwa

We can’t afford to wait another generation to address Chicago’s lead pipe problem

Gina Ramirez and Oscar Sanchez at a Chicagwa event in Downtown Chicago on May 10

Credit: Ivan Moreno

Chicago’s eyebrow-raising, canned drinking water initiative is still going strong as the city handed out free cans of Chicago tap water downtown last week to promote our “safe” water.

After getting my can, I read the fine print, which notes that the water is put through a rigorous 10-step purification process and gives the advice to choose tap water whenever possible. What the fine print fails to mention is that lead can leach into drinking water after the purification process, when the water travels through one of the city’s hundreds of thousands of lead pipes before reaching people’s homes.

The funding for this initiative to tout the city’s “clean” drinking water would be better spent removing lead pipes from the ground so current Chicagoans and future generations will actually be able to drink lead-free water in their homes.

Chicago, the city with the most lead service lines in the country and a slow track record of replacing them, doesn’t have any more time to waste.

No amount of lead is safe. Yet between 2015 and 2020, tap water measurements in dozens of Illinois homes showed hundreds, and even thousands, of parts per billion of lead, just as extreme as what researchers found during the same period in Flint, Michigan, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Thanks to President Joe Biden’s federal infrastructure bill, more than $100 million has been allocated for Illinois, and Chicago in particular, to replace the network of lead pipes. The money is there but the political will is not.

Chicago has replaced fewer than 100 of the city’s nearly 400,000 lead pipes. In March, CBS News calculated that the city has had a 3.3 percent fulfillment rate on lead pipe replacements. “At that pace, it will take the city 19,354 years to purge itself of this outdated infrastructure.”

Campaigns like Chicagwa send the message that our city is not prioritizing our health and not treating Chicago’s lead issue with the urgency it requires—especially for Black and Latino communities like mine, whom this issue disproportionately impacts.

Credit: Ivan Moreno

We simply cannot wait another generation to replace lead pipes while we continue to be poisoned by our water.

I would love to be able to praise my city’s drinking water as “some of the cleanest and safest in the world” as the Chicagwa campaign claims. But we have a long way to go before it’s time to celebrate.

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