Illinois Takes a Major Step Toward Replacing Its Lead Service Lines

The Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act will put the health of Illinoisians first—particularly those who bear the brunt of toxic lead exposure.

A plumber with Chicago’s department of water management working on a partial replacement of a lead service line, a practice that would be banned under the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act

Credit: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act will put the health of Illinoisans first—particularly those who bear the brunt of toxic lead exposure.

The Illinois General Assembly passed a landmark bill last night that requires the state’s utilities to replace all remaining lead service lines, the primary culprits behind lead contamination in drinking water. The bill, which also includes a new state fund to help utilities complete the project within the required time frame, is now headed to Governor Pritzker to be signed into law.

Health experts agree there is no safe level of lead exposure: The heavy metal can cause serious and irreversible damage to the body, affecting the nervous system, fertility, and cognitive ability, among other functions. Children, fetuses, and pregnant individuals are at highest risk. Due to these health impacts, lead pipe installation was banned by Congress in 1986, but at least 686,000 lead lines—and up to 1.4 million—remain in use across Illinois, which has the most lead service lines of any state, totalling about 12.5 percent of all the remaining lead lines in the nation.

“Lead in drinking water is one of the biggest environmental health threats facing Illinois—and the country—but this law will make the state an example of how we can fix the root of the problem in an equitable way,” says Jeremy Orr, senior staff attorney for the Safe Water Initiative at NRDC, which supported the bill.

Critically, the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act prioritizes lead line replacements for communities currently at the highest risk of lead exposure. Based on recent analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), another supporter of the bill, Illinois’s Black and Latino residents are twice as likely as white residents to live in areas with the most lead service lines. “Access to clean, safe drinking water is essential to life,” says Brenda Santoyo, policy associate at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which also backed the bill. “This law will invest in neighborhoods like Little Village and finally address the health threats caused by lead in drinking water in communities that are already overburdened with other environmental injustices.

The bill also bans partial lead line replacements, which only replace the utility-owned side of a lead pipe while leaving the homeowner’s half intact. This practice is often more dangerous than not replacing a lead line at all, as it disturbs the lead material in the remaining pipes and can cause spikes in lead contamination.

Not only does the bill protect Illinoisans' health, but replacing lead service lines could bring some 11,225 jobs and over $1 billion per year in related economic activity, according to an MPC report. “As lawmakers in D.C. consider a federal infrastructure package,” Orr says, “Illinois is ahead of the pack in showing it is ready to put infrastructure dollars to work.”

Recent NRDC analysis indicated that 186 million people in the United States—56 percent of the country's population—drank water from drinking water systems detecting lead levels exceeding the level of 1 part per billion recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Illinois is setting a model for lead service line replacement since it’ll take local, state, and federal legislation to ensure that equitable investments in water infrastructure are in place to protect the safety of our drinking water," Santoyo says.

Other supporters of the bill include Elevate, Illinois Environmental Council, Illinois Action for Children, Metropolitan Tenants Organization, League of Women Voters, Illinois Pipe Trades Association, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, and Faith in Place Action Fund.

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