Lead in water a threat to two-thirds of young children in Chicago

Two out of three very young children in Chicago were exposed to at least trace amounts of lead in their home tap water, a study found, highlighting the need for City Hall to speed up replacements of brain-damaging lead pipes. [Chicago Sun-Times]

A study by Johns Hopkins and Stanford researchers, published Monday in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, used artificial intelligence to estimate the extent of exposure of children across the city to water from home faucets containing lead.

In all, 129,000 children, 68% of those 5 or younger had lead in their home drinking water, the study found.

Young children in Black and Latino communities were potentially exposed at even higher rates, according to the study, which looked at household testing data from 2016 to last fall. The researchers used machine learning and simulation to estimate the number of children affected.

“These findings indicate that childhood lead exposure is widespread in Chicago,” the researchers wrote.

Chicago has more lead service lines — more than 400,000 — than any other city in the country.

Mayor Brandon Johnson and former Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged to tackle the problem, but the job is expected to take decades to complete. And even targeted programs, including work toward a plan to remove harmful lead lines in home day care centers, is moving slowly.

The city responded by saying that its water is in compliance with federal standards.

“Chicago’s water continues to meet and exceed all standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” the city said in a statement. “There is always more to be done and we will continuously work towards a future where no child in Chicago is at risk of lead poisoning.”

The study looked at any trace of lead from 1 part per billion, about a half teaspoon of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool. The EPA will sound the alarm on lead levels in water when they are about 15 times that level.

Benjamin Huynh, an assistant professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the study, doesn’t dispute that the city is within EPA guidelines.

“An action level set by EPA is not meant to be used as individual guidance,” Huynh said, noting that lead can cause serious developmental and neurological harm to children.

A health and environmental advocate agreed and said any research emphasizing the impact of lead on young children should stir politicians to act.

“Anytime children are involved, it points to the urgency,” said Chakena Perry, senior policy advocate for environmental health at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Despite billions of dollars in federal resources to swap out lead lines, Chicago has struggled to pay for the replacements.

Even after President Joe Biden declared the country would be free of lead pipes in a decade, Chicago was given a pass and has at least 40 years to complete the job.