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New report finds 'shocking' levels of lead in Chicago water

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

From 2016 to 2021, Chicago's Department of Water Management conducted a study. They invited people in the country's third most populous city to test their water for lead. The city released the data but never shared a public analysis on how safe the drinking water is. Now several journalists with The Guardian have analyzed Chicago's water quality study, and some water engineers call the results shocking. Taylor Moore and Erin McCormick join us to share more of their reporting for The Guardian - good to have you both here.

ERIN MCCORMICK: Thank you, Ari.

TAYLOR MOORE: Thank you for having us.

SHAPIRO: Erin, what was so shocking about the findings?

MCCORMICK: Well, it looks like a lot of people in Chicago are drinking water with at least low levels of lead. And the federal government has told us that any level of lead is really concerning. We looked at 24,000 home tests that residents took of their own water and then sent to the city to be analyzed. And we found about a thousand of them were above the EPA's limit for lead, which is a dangerous toxin. And beyond that, a third of the tests were above the limits that are allowed for bottled water.

SHAPIRO: And there were disparities from one neighborhood to another. Tell us about those.

MCCORMICK: The real danger about lead is whether or not you have lead pipes. And lead pipes are ubiquitous in old homes. So they tend to be in the neighborhoods where more Black and brown residents live in old homes and thus have these old, maybe 100-year-old pipes.

SHAPIRO: Taylor, I've done a lot of reporting over the years on the lead crisis in Flint, Mich., and I will never forget some of the parents I met there who've told me about the way this may have affected their children. Are there stories from families you spoke with in Chicago that have stuck with you from this reporting?

MOORE: Yeah, absolutely, Ari. Many parents told me that they were really distressed to find out the extent of the lead problem and that their children were affected. I think there's a real sense of shame, this idea that they should have known about it or should have done more to protect their children. But ultimately, it isn't their fault. And one parent we spoke to is Illinois State Senator Ram Villivalam. He told us about how now in 2018, he and his family buys this home in the northwest side of Chicago. And during a routine check-up a year later, they find out that his toddler - his lead levels came back five times higher than the CDC limit. But, you know, they can't afford the $20,000 cost to replace the pipes. And the state senator has since introduced legislation requiring lead inspections in all residential homes in the state, and that currently is sitting in the state house.

SHAPIRO: Erin, tell me about the role that the lead industry played in creating this problem.

MCCORMICK: So Chicago has more lead pipes than any other city in the nation. And the reason that it has so many is because it was in the city's code that it was mandatory to connect your home to the water system with lead pipes up until 1986. But we looked back at how this had gotten into city codes around the country and found that the lead industry led a campaign to get cities to put this into their code and to convince plumbers to defend the city codes. Nowadays, the city is asking residents to spend their own money to take these pipes out, and it can cost up to $27,000. So that is a lot of money for people.

SHAPIRO: How has the city responded to your reporting?

MCCORMICK: We have not had a response from the city. They told us initially that they didn't think it was fair to look at the water with the same standards as bottled water. But the government has said that there's no safe level of lead. And there's been study after study, but both the EPA and the CDC now repeat that. It's shown that lead can cause loss of IQ points. It can cause learning disabilities, and it can happen at such low levels that in, say, one child, you don't even notice it. But if you have a large population of people drinking small amounts of lead, it can affect the whole population in terms of their productivity, how much money people are able to make in their lifetimes and all kinds of factors that can be really a big concern for the whole society, really.

SHAPIRO: Chicago now has a plan to replace all the lead pipes in the city in the next 50 years. What do experts say about that timeline?

MOORE: It's actually way longer than the rest of the state is expected to replace the lead pipes. When the legislation was being drafted, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had asked state lawmakers to extend Chicago's timeline due to the scale of the pipes. Currently, there is an ongoing promise from the city since 2020 to replace 650 lead pipes by the end of last year. But at this time, only 154 pipes have been replaced as of this past week, so it's really not being treated like an emergency as it should be.

SHAPIRO: If Chicago had not asked people in the city to do these tests, we might not know the scale of the problem. So how many other American cities do you think have a lead problem that is as bad as or worse than Chicago but just people there haven't done the tests to find out?

MCCORMICK: Well, we don't know. But the NRDC has estimated that there are 11 million Americans who have lead service lines. And a lot of...

SHAPIRO: The Natural Resources Defense Council. Yeah.

MCCORMICK: Yes. And a lot of them may not even know about it. So, you know, if all of these people are drinking low levels of lead, as many studies have suggested, that's a big concern that our whole nation needs to kind of get moving on getting these pipes out of the ground. And it really seems like it's taking longer than expected.

SHAPIRO: That's Erin McCormick and Taylor Moore talking about their investigative report with Aliya Uteuova for The Guardian about lead contamination in Chicago's water system. Thank you both.

MCCORMICK: Thank you, Ari.

MOORE: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROVER WASHINGTON JR'S "MISTER MAGIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Mia Venkat
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
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