Two-thirds of young children in Chicago are exposed to dangerous levels of lead in water, research shows

By | March 19, 2024

More than two-thirds of children under the age of six in Chicago may be exposed to lead-contaminated water, a new study finds.

The study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, analyzed lead exposure based on 38,385 household lead tests collected by the Chicago Department of Water Management between January 2016 and September 2023. The researchers used machine learning, an artificial intelligence technique which uses algorithms to estimate lead. levels in Chicago tap water based on this existing data.

They found that about 75% of residential blocks in Chicago contained lead-contaminated water. And more than two-thirds (about 129,000) children under the age of six in Chicago live on these blocks and may be exposed to lead-contaminated water.

“The extent of lead contamination of tap water in Chicago is disheartening – it is not something we should see in 2024,” said Dr. Benjamin Huynh, lead author of the study and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a press release.

City blocks with predominantly black or Hispanic populations were less likely to be tested for lead and were more likely to have lead-contaminated drinking water, the study found.

“For more than thirty years, lead has been the emblematic example of environmental racism. It’s still children of color or poor children who are disproportionately affected,” said Dr. Monna Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University who helped expose the Flint water crisis and was not involved in this investigation.

The cutoff value researchers used to determine whether a residential block had lead-contaminated drinking water was if the majority of tests within a block had more than 1 part per billion (ppb) lead concentration. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there is no safe level of lead in water.

The EPA’s current action level for lead in drinking water, which requires a municipality to take additional steps to educate the public and replace lead plumbing pipes, is 15 ppb in 10% of samples. The study found that 9% of household tests in Chicago had lead levels higher than 15 ppb, according to the Johns Hopkins press release.

Lead enters the water when pipes, faucets and fixtures containing lead corrode and leak lead into the water, according to the EPA. Before they were banned in 1986, lead pipes were often used to connect homes to water supplies.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product and Safety Commission, there is no safe lead level for children. “Even low levels of lead in the blood have been shown to affect learning, the ability to pay attention and academic performance,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lead “bioaccumulates” in the body, meaning it remains and builds up over time, so continued exposure, even at extremely low levels, can become toxic. Children, especially infants, are particularly vulnerable because a smaller dose of lead can have a greater health effect on them compared to adults, the EPA said.

“A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. In children, low levels of exposure have been associated with damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired blood cell formation and function,” the EPA said on its website.

Sources of lead exposure can include lead-based paint and products, lead in soil and air and lead in drinking water, according to the CDC. According to experts, 10 to 20% of our exposure to lead comes from polluted water.

Many cities still use lead water pipes that were installed before the introduction of the EPA. In the US, more than 9.2 million households get water through lead pipes, the agency says. According to the study, Chicago has nearly 400,000 lead pipes, more than any other city in the US.

The EPA has proposed a requirement to replace most lead water pipes within ten years. Chicago would have 40 years to comply with this proposal, given the extraordinary number of lead water pipes in the city, Huynh said.

Hanna-Attisha said the Flint water crisis and ongoing advocacy have led to recognition that lead-contaminated drinking water is a serious problem, but stronger policies are still needed. In February, the Biden administration announced $5.8 billion in funding to help replace lead pipes and improve water infrastructure across the country.

Huynh said that as municipalities work to replace lead pipes, they should also take interim measures to expand access to lead testing and provide filtration to anyone with a lead service line.

Many experts suggest that parents have their child’s lead levels tested at ages 1 and 2, and possibly more often depending on the part of the country. The test can be easily performed by a pediatrician or at a local state, county, or city health department.

Lead cannot be seen, tasted or smelled, so testing is the only way to know the amounts of lead in drinking water. People can reduce lead levels in drinking water by testing their water, contacting their water supplier to determine if their service pipes are made of lead and by using and maintaining a good filter, the EPA said.

CNN’s Madeline Holcombe and Sandee LaMotte contributed to this report.

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