Lead pipes, child care centers, foot dragging a dangerous mix for Chicago’s children

Home day cares, mostly on Chicago’s South and West sides, are prioritized by the city for lead pipe replacements, but future funding is murky.

The children at Ruby Williams’ home day care in Austin have been drinking bottled water for years.

Williams wasn’t sure if there were any issues with the tap water in her house that’s more than a century old, but she provided the store-bought bottles to be safe.

In early 2023, the city removed Williams’ lead service line at no cost to her, she said, under a program that prioritizes the removal of the brain-damaging metal pipes from more than 1,500 home child care businesses.

Williams, who cares for six children ranging from 4 months to 3 years old, still won’t give the kids water from the faucets, though she’s grateful for the help. At a cost estimated by the city of as much $35,000 for each lead service line replacement, she couldn’t afford to foot the bill.

That city program aims to replace more than 100 lead pipes from day cares per year, putting the completion at well over a decade.

Considering the vulnerability of the kids — most of them living on the South Side and West Side — the timeline to replace the lead fixtures is unacceptably long, advocates for children say.

“Exposure to lead has severe consequences,” says Caroline Pakenham, director of water programs at the Chicago nonprofit Elevate, “including damage to the developing brain and nervous system.”

City officials, charged with fixing the decades-old problem , agree.

“The issue for us is always the funding,” said Joel Vieyra, first deputy commissioner at the Department of Water Management. “We will figure out the funding piece to make sure we have a comprehensive, accelerated day care program.”

So far, that funding hasn’t been figured out, and no politicians at the city or state level are offering solutions.

The cost of pipe replacements at day cares has been covered by a hodgepodge of funding sources, including a mix of city, state and federal money.


New city Water Department chief Randy Conner said in a statement that it’s a “high priority” to “identify and allocate as much funding as possible.”

Despite the promises to tackle the problem, future funding remains uncertain.

It cost more than $4 million to replace 117 lead lines in home child care centers last year.

While that is a sizable amount of money, the city is spending $40 million a month to address the migrant crisis.

In the meantime, bottled water, water cooler service and filters are the go-to solutions for home day care providers.

“We need to join forces and do a more comprehensive plan,” said Maria Del Carmen Macias, a former child care provider who now helps other day care operators with the lead issue through the Service Employees International Union. “It is like a pandemic.”

She says she believes the state has the money to do more to help the care providers.

In all, Chicago has more than 400,000 lead service lines that need to be replaced — more than any other city in the country. It received a federal loan late last year for $336 million . But with each home estimated to cost $30,000 to $35,000 to remove lead pipes, that money only goes so far.

Day cares are emblematic of a high number of children at risk.

Almost 6% of Chicago’s 2.7 million residents are children younger than 5, according to U.S. Census data.

That number of young children is higher in some communities. 

The percentage of those under 5 jumps to almost 7% in Austin, a majority-Black community with almost 97,000 residents. 

Englewood, also majority-Black, counts 8% of its more than 24,000 residents as under 5.

In Little Village and the surrounding area, the under-5 population is about 6% of the more than 71,000 residents in the Latino-majority community.

Ruby Williams smiles as she holds a baby wearing a grey top and red checkered pants while she stands next to shelves filled with children’s books as birthday balloons float behind them.
Ruby Williams has been giving the kids in her home day care bottled water for years. “I felt funny about drinking water from the faucet,” she said.

The threat is real across the rest of Cook County as well, where cash-strapped suburbs can’t help child care operators financially.

County officials, with help from federal money, are replacing lead pipes in home day cares in partnership with Elevate. There are an estimated 550 suburban home-based day cares that need to replace their lead pipes.

Cook County received $15 million from the American Rescue Plan, federal legislation passed in 2021 to jumpstart the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. That funding will help replace day care lead lines and provide technical assistance to municipalities that need to replace all lead pipes through the end of 2026.

The aid is a relief to those child care providers who use filters to remove lead from water, an expensive strategy.

“I was spending more money with those filters — at least $50 to $60 each time, every two to three months,” said Emma Jefferson, who cares for 16 children at her Calumet City home and was helped by the county program.