What’s Scarier Than Lead in Your Drinking Water?

October 23–29 is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week—let’s use the opportunity to take action.

Marcelina Pedraza at her home in the East Side neighborhood of Chicago on June 3, 2021. Pedraza had her water tested for lead in January 2020, and lead was present in three samples.

Taylor Glascock for NRDC

October 23 to 29 is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. Here in Illinois, drinking water that is free of lead is hardly a guarantee. Illinois has the most lead services lines in the nation—potentially 1.4 million! Recently, the Guardian found that about 1,000 homes across the city had water levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). As a parent, finding out that the drinking water I’ve been giving my child contains lead would be one of my worst nightmares. 

Chicago and Illinois are moving at a glacial (pre–climate change) pace to remove lead service lines, but they should act now to protect its most vulnerable residents from lead in their drinking water by providing filters certified for lead removal to pregnant people and families with young children. 

The city of Chicago technically has a program where you can see if you qualify for a filter. But in our opinion, anyone who is vulnerable shouldn’t have to jump through hoops or experience any kind of delay in securing safe drinking water. The stakes are too high. Lead is especially dangerous for young children and pregnant people. It can reduce children’s IQs, cause learning disabilities and hyperactivity, interfere with impulse control, and cause irreversible harm to the developing brain. 

We also know that safe drinking water is harder to come by if you are a person of color or someone who lives in a lower-income neighborhood. In fact, Illinoisans are disproportionately impacted. A Metropolitan Planning Council study found that people of color in Illinois are up to twice as likely as white Illinoisans to live in the communities where almost all of Illinois's lead service lines are located.

The Guardian analysis also found that nine of the top 10 zip codes with the largest percentages of high test results were neighborhoods with majorities of Black and Latino residents, and there were dozens of homes with shockingly high lead levels. One home, in the majority-Black neighborhood of South Chicago, had lead levels of 1,100 ppb—more than 73 times the EPA action level of 15 ppb.

These numbers aren’t smoke and mirrors. They represent the impact of how the legacy of lead has and will continue to negatively impact real children, actual families, and communities across the state unless we take action now. 

The good news is that there is funding from the federal government for communities to start addressing the problem. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates a historic $15 billion for lead service line identification and replacement. In 2022 alone, Illinois will receive $106 million of this money for lead service line replacement. While these funds will not cover the entire cost of the effort, it is a significant down payment. There is no need to wait. 

Will Illinois and the city of Chicago open the door and fully welcome the opportunity to protect and prevent kids from drinking from a series of what are essentially lead straws that could permanently harm their brains and potential for a bright future? As parents, we try to make sure the candy that our kids collect to eat is safe. We should want the same for our drinking water.   

While Lead Prevention Week will be over soon, we’ll leave the proverbial light on and welcome anyone who wants to work with us to help our kids and future generations have safe drinking water. 

If you would like to urge the mayor of Chicago to take action now, click on the link to make your voice heard: Urge Mayor Lori Lightfoot to replace Chicago’s lead service lines and protect residents!

Follow the link below to watch the October 24, 2022, press conference that features local advocates and State Senator Ram Villivalam calling for urgent action on the drinking water lead contamination crisis in Chicago. They urge city officials to distribute lead filters to Chicago’s most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant people and low-income communities of color.

About the Authors

Angela Guyadeen

Director, Safe Water Initiative, People & Communities Program

Gina Ramirez

Midwest Outreach Manager

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