Safe drinking water is a fundamental human right. Yet, year after year, families in my community still struggle with lead-contaminated drinking water — and it’s coming straight from their faucets. [Chicago Tribune 8.16.2023]
The Southeast Side of Chicago is made up of several vibrant communities, full of old houses like mine, plagued by many environmental impacts including dangerous lead service lines that bring toxic, contaminated drinking water into our homes, schools, day care centers, senior living facilities, restaurants and more. For too long, we have lived under constant threat from poisoned water that harms our health and jeopardizes our children’s futures. Enough is enough.
With 400,000 lead water pipes across the city, Chicago is the lead pipe capital of the country. And that’s scary for me, knowing that even low levels of lead can harm our bodies, and what’s worse is how many people don’t even realize it. In Chicago, everyone who lives in a house or two-flat that was built before 1986 faces a high risk that the water coming into their home first travels through a lead drinking straw. This everyday exposure to lead puts folks in our area at high risk of serious health effects such as immune system dysfunction, neurological impacts, harm to reproductive organs and, worst of all, deadly lead poisoning.
In March, my collective, Bridges // Puentes, held a special event where we educated community members about the existence and harms of lead in water. It was alarming to see the anxiety come over them, not knowing if their water is clean, wondering how to find out and wanting to know how to be safe. “What about the school I work at?” one participant noted.
My neighbors and I are some of the millions of people across the country who face daily exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals in our drinking water. The burden of this public health crisis falls disproportionately on communities and children of color, who are more likely to live in areas with old water infrastructure. As someone who is deeply involved in building a sense of connection and community in our corner of Chicago, I can see the heavy toll this stress takes on local families. A majority of Americans, including 76% of Black adults, worry about polluted drinking water, and the concerns voiced by our communities are justified. We can all think of someone who has struggled in school or with infertility or had kidney or heart disease, for example. These are all dangerous health implications of drinking lead-contaminated water, and frankly, we are facing a pressing public health crisis.
People in nearly 10 million homes and 400,000 schools and child care centers across the nation are still drinking water out of faucets, and efforts to replace lead service lines continue to drag on. With every water crisis that strikes, people in communities like mine are forced to take matters into their own hands to keep our children safe while government is stagnant in taking action. Many people still aren’t aware that toxins may be flowing through the faucet in their kitchen — and what’s worse is many aren’t being told or offered resources to take immediate action
Consider this. Chicago is a dense city, with apartments, high-rises and old houses galore. When you rent an apartment, you typically don’t pay the water bill; the building owner does. How are renters being made aware of the dangers that exist in the home they are living in? Some homes qualify for a free water pitcher from the city — that’s one per property. What about the other three tenants in that building? The city needs to be doing more. We need our leaders to take action.
President Joe Biden and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency need to pursue strong and just Lead and Copper Rule Improvements to finally get the lead out of our drinking water. We need the EPA to seize this critical opportunity to protect the communities of Chicago and beyond by passing the strongest rule possible to replace all lead service lines in the country as quickly as possible. This commonsense ruling would prioritize impacted communities like mine that need it most and ensure that utility companies foot the bill and take responsibility for cleanup.
Our children can’t learn, grow or live healthy lives if they can’t drink safe water. My family is one of many that are proud to have multigenerational roots in the Southeast Side, and we will continue our fight against the environmental racism and political inaction that harm our communities. As neighbors, co-workers, parents and fellow community members, we stand united in our call on the EPA to hear our voices and propose the strongest improvements possible, so that we can support our families with the safe drinking water and healthy futures they all deserve.
Vanessa Bly is a co-founder of Bridges // Puentes: Justice Collective of the Southeast.