In Chicago, Safe Water Is Still No Guarantee
“There are so many lead service lines in Chicago, but people aren’t talking about it,” says advocate Cheryl Watson. Now she and other frontline residents are changing the conversation.
When Cheryl Watson, Marcelina Pedraza, and MariCarmen Macias talk about tap water, it can trigger a flood of worries. As lifelong residents of Chicago, the three women—a community advocate, an electrician and mother of a young daughter, and a home childcare provider, respectively—have each come face-to-face with the ongoing drinking water crisis affecting their city. And the 400,000 lead pipes that caused it are still in use.
Illinois has as many as 1.4 million lead service lines, more than any other state in the nation. Black and Latino Illinoisans are disproportionately impacted by the state’s contaminated drinking water, being twice as likely to live in neighborhoods with lead service lines as white residents. The problem is especially acute in Chicago, where the city required the use of lead service lines until Congress banned them in 1986. Many other cities had discontinued their use years before, in recognition of the fact that exposure to lead can cause serious health issues, especially in babies and children, whose nervous systems, cognitive abilities, and developing bodies are especially vulnerable.
In May, the Illinois legislature passed the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act, which essentially gave all municipalities deadlines to count and remove their lead service lines by the year 2071. But a timeline of 50 years for Chicago has been met with criticism by many, and safe water activists are pushing for the lead pipes’ immediate removal. Meanwhile, advocates for President Biden’s American Jobs Plan are hailing its proposed $45 billion budget for getting the nation’s lead pipes out of the ground.
Below, Watson, Pedraza, and Macias shed light on a public health problem that demands swift action and, most importantly, a deep commitment to providing safe drinking water to all city residents.
Mobilizing a Grassroots Response
Volunteer, Chicago Conservation Corps
I live in the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side. At the Chicago Conservation Corps, we find our own projects in the community that will help make a difference in people’s lives. I was a science teacher for several years, and I’ve always been interested in citizen science projects. I followed the story of Flint’s lead crisis in Michigan from the beginning, so I was aware of Dr. Marc Edwards, the scientist from Virginia Tech who helped with the issue. When I learned that the Virginia Tech team was planning a citizen science project in Chicago to test lead levels in tap water, I reached out and became a local leader for that project. I wanted to help spread the word that this is a critical issue.
There are so many lead service lines in Chicago, but people aren’t talking about it. The approach I took was to go all out on social media. I needed to get the word out that we would be hosting outreach events. I contacted Boy Scout troops, Girl Scout troops, churches, community groups, neighbors—anyone I could think of. We created a website and made flyers; our theme was, “What’s in Your Water?” It was a three-month effort that started in June 2019. In the end, we handed out about 300 home lead testing kits.
When we engaged with people, they were like, “I've never thought about this. I didn't know anything about this.” It's not surprising because, especially when you're in underserved and disinvested communities, we're not getting the upgrades that are occurring in other areas of Chicago. This project gave me an opportunity to talk to mothers who were frustrated that the schools didn’t inform them about lead contamination, or whether they corrected the problem or not. I met grandmothers who take care of young kids, worried about if they have lead in their water at their house. We had a church that had very high levels. We told them to disconnect all of the water fountains. We told people to call us if their tests showed elevated lead levels and if they wanted additional information or to discuss it.
Policymakers need to be out there talking to everyday people. But I think a lot of former city leaders were in denial about lead in the water. This effort helped shine a light on it. Lead service lines were mandated, so the city should take responsibility for correcting it.
Speaking Out for Immediate Action
Mom, electrician, activist
I grew up in South Chicago. I've been on the Southeast Side most of my life. In the summer of 2019, my daughter and I moved to a new home in the area. After a few months, I realized that my water bills were higher than I expected. I wanted to get a meter installed on this house because I knew I wasn't consuming as much as what the bill reflected. But the city told me, "Oh, we're not putting in the meters anymore because of the lead." I was like, "What lead? What are you talking about?" I didn't know. I was told that they stopped installing water meters because they noticed that the work was disrupting the lead in the pipes—elevating the lead levels in the tap water. I knew lead was in our land from the old steel mills and the industry and that it has been here for years, but I didn't even realize that it was in our water. It's scary to hear that. I wanted to know if I had lead pipes.
I called the city, and they mailed me a kit with containers and instructions. About a month later, in February 2020, I got the results. I was shocked to see that there was a significant amount of lead. They did mail me a pitcher with filters a few weeks later to use for my drinking and cooking water. The letter with the findings said to call the city for further testing, so that's what I did. Then the pandemic started, and they weren't doing any home visits. I think more than a year passed.
I was able to finally schedule more testing by the city in May 2021. They sent a plumber to inspect the service line, an electrician to see if it was properly grounded, and an engineer to collect the water samples. The plumber confirmed that I have a lead service line. They said if I want to replace it, the cost would be $15,000 to $25,000 to do it on my own with a licensed plumbing contractor. That's an astronomical amount of money to spend. [In July, results from the second round of testing confirmed the presence of lead.]
I also asked if the city offered any programs for residents to get their service lines replaced and they said, there's a pilot program to help families, but you must qualify. It's based on income. I have a good job, but there’s no way I can afford that.
If I was part of the top 1 percent in income level, which I'm not, obviously, then I wouldn't have these problems. I would be able to buy a new house with safe everything. For most people, it's hard. We're in the middle. I can't go out and spend $20,000 on new pipes that I didn't have anything to do with installing. Hopefully we can get some government money—some spending on infrastructure to eventually replace all the lead service lines. I know a bill just passed in the state of Illinois that wants to address the issue, but I read that it's going to take 50 years for them to do it. That'll be good for the next generation, but what about right now?
Advocating for Children and Their Caretakers
I live in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, where I have been a licensed childcare provider for 14 years. I provide childcare services out of my home. We are licensed by the Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS), and we need to renew every three years. In 2018, I had to renew my license and there was a new requirement to test my water for lead. That’s when I started to learn more about this issue. I had already been involved with Elevate, a nonprofit based in Chicago that offers training and classes for home childcare providers. I had learned how to test for lead, so I was ready. But many of the other providers—there are thousands in the state of Illinois—were not so lucky. There was very little information provided to people.
I decided to work with Elevate to train providers because the DCFS did not have anything planned. I have a network of more than 400 providers. The training takes four hours and teaches you everything step by step. What is lead? How is lead present in your home? What are the harmful effects of lead on children?
It is a requirement from DCFS that once you receive your results from the lab, you need to share them with the families. It is also an opportunity to educate families to test for lead themselves because this is not just a problem that affects childcare providers. Even if a provider’s home is safe, what if a child has high levels of lead in their own home?
The primary concern is that lead harms the brain of a child, and there's no cure. We are damaging the future of every child. What bothers me personally is that we have some senators or representatives who are focusing on money. I would say to them: Can we afford to keep on poisoning our kids? For how many more years? For how many more decades?
This NRDC.org story is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the story was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the story cannot be edited (beyond simple things such as grammar); you can’t resell the story in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select stories individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our stories.
Reflections of a Chicago Community Organizer: Water Justice and the Need to Act Now
Mining for Limestone on Chicago’s Southeast Side? Residents Gear Up for a Fight (Again).
Three Ways We Can Make Schools Healthier This Year