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Chicago Tap Water Lead Levels Raise Concerns

Nearly 70$ of homes in Chicago had evidence of lead contamination in the tap water, according to a new report, which also indicates that 30% of the homes tested had tap water lead levels considered unsafe for children. 

The Chicago Tribune published an investigative report on April 12, highlighting the high levels of lead in Chicago tap water, which may be high enough to pose a risk of lead poisoning and result in brain damage for children. In many of the Chicago homes tested, the lead levels exceeded those allowed in bottled water by the FDA.

For the analysis, investigators conducted tests of tap water in 2,797 Chicago homes over the past two years. According to the findings, nearly 7 out of every 10 tested positive for lead, and 3 out of every 10 had lead concentrations that exceeded five parts per billion, which is the maximum allowable amount of lead in bottled water.

The water quality standards for utilities are far less than those for bottled water, however. They only have to show that 90% of homes tested have lead levels below 15 ppb, which is three times the limit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers dangerous for children under the age of seven

Many health experts say that no amount of lead in drinking water is safe, particularly when it comes to children, where lead exposure may impact the developing brain.

While the city has plans to conduct an overhaul of its water system, replacing service lines has been left to individual property owners. The cost of replacing the old lead pipes in those lines far exceeds the financial capabilities of many Chicago residents, particularly in poor areas where the problem is often the worst.

While lead exposure has been linked to heart disease in adults, elevated blood lead levels are an indicator that children may be at risk for side effects of lead poisoning, which can lead to serious nervous system injury, brain damage, seizures, growth or mental disability, as well as other severe health problems throughout the rest of their childhood and life.

One of the more common causes of of lead poisoning is lead-based paint, which was banned in the United States in 1978 due to the risk of severe and permanent brain damage and developmental problems, particularly in children. However, a number of older homes still contain the toxic paint on the walls, and if it flakes or peals off, young children could ingest the paint chips or breathe dust that comes from the paint, resulting in lead poisoning. Many of those homes are owned by HUD or receive HUD assistance.

In recent years, there has also been an increased focus on lead in drinking water, stemming from the recent and ongoing Flint water crisis, during which a change to the water system in the Michigan city resulted in high levels of lead in residents’ drinking water, causing thousands of children to suffer lead exposure and, potentially, lead poisoning.

The CDC estimates that 535,000 children ages 1-5, or about 2.6% of such children in the U.S., have levels of lead in their blood that place them at risk for adverse health effects. To come up with that number, the CDC analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the years 1999 to 2002, and 2007 through 2010.

The majority of those children are poor and live in older urban areas, mainly in the inner city. Most are minorities, meaning such exposures add to numerous problems already plaguing inner city black and Latino youths, such as poverty, high crime and poor schools.

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