A dispenser holding a five-gallon water jug sits in Evanston resident Oliver Ruff’s kitchen. With separate warm and cool spigots, the dispenser provides water that Ruff uses for drinking, cooking, and making tea.
Ruff and his family avoid drinking from the kitchen tap because they worry the water may contain lead, a toxic metal that is especially harmful for children. Their home was constructed in 1952 with a lead service line, which carries water from the water main under the street up to the home.
In Evanston, 78% of service lines are made of lead. Although many U.S. cities stopped building homes with lead service lines in the 1930s and ‘40s, Chicago and some of the surrounding cities continued installing these pipes until they were banned federally in 1986, explained Jeremy Orr, Staff Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Safe Water Initiative.
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For this reason, Illinois has more lead service lines than any other state, and the majority of these are located in the Chicago area, according to NRDC estimates.
Evanston also reports higher than normal levels of lead in children’s blood, according to the Evanston Health and Human Services Department. Of the 1,602 children’s blood tests that the department recorded in 2018, 94% exceeded 3.5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), which represents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s blood lead reference value.
Only 2.5% of U.S. children ages 1-5 have blood lead levels above the blood lead reference value, putting Evanston children at the top of national blood lead levels. Read more about these blood lead levels in Part 1 of this series.
To protect themselves from the toxic substance, some residents have replaced their lead service lines, but the procedure is not cheap. Homeowners can expect to spend $7,000 replacing their pipes, said David Stoneback, Director of the Public Works Agency in Evanston.
“I just have not been able to afford the total revamping of the plumbing system,” said Ruff. Unable to remove the pipes, Ruff said he chooses to invest in store-bought water for his family rather than risk lead exposure.
Until recently the city provided little support for residents like Ruff, who want to replace their lead pipes but can’t afford the expense. The city offered loans, and in some cases grants, to residents living in areas impacted by a water main project — where the city already planned to dig up the ground — but otherwise homeowners were expected to cover the cost of replacing lead service lines themselves.
But now an Illinois law, passed last summer, mandates that Evanston and other communities must develop a lead-service-line replacement plan by 2027, after which 3% of their lead service lines are to be replaced each year. Evanston hopes to collect enough funding to fully cover the cost of replacing both private and public lead service lines. Part 2 of this series further outlines the mandate and how it will affect Evanston residents.
Although Ruff said he is glad to hear about the mandate, he hopes homeowners don’t have to wait another 30 years before the city replaces the lead service lines attached to their homes. Community members who have been underserved by city government in the past should be prioritized in the city’s lead-service-line replacement plan, he said.
Lead pipes disproportionately affect communities of color
“The city should be paying for full lead-service-line replacements for all residents, but especially those especially vulnerable communities, who are disproportionately impacted by lead in drinking water,” said the NRDC’s Orr.
Blood lead levels are significantly higher in low-income communities and communities of color, and those individuals are financially responsible for a problem that they didn’t cause, Orr said.
A 2020 study by the Metropolitan Planning Council found that 65% of Black Illinois residents live in areas that contain 94% of the state’s lead service lines. Only 30% of white Illinoisans live in those same communities. Therefore, Black residents are up to twice as likely to live in areas with lead pipes than white residents.
Another 2020 study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that Black children living in poverty were four times as likely to have a blood lead level at or above 5 µg/dL than poor white or Hispanic children.
The Evanston Health and Human Service Department was not able to provide blood lead level data that might indicate racial disparities in Evanston, but several city leaders, including Robin Rue Simmons, the former council member who spearheaded the city’s reparations program, and Cara Pratt, Evanston’s Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator, concluded that Black children in Evanston are likely to have more lead exposure than white children.
Due to systemic racism and oppression, the household incomes of Black residents are $46,000 less than white households, Simmons said. This wealth gap means Black residents are more likely to live in older housing — where lead service lines are usually found.
Orr added that in many wealthy and white communities, families replaced their lead service lines, or moved into newer homes without them. Meanwhile, community members who can’t afford to replace their lead plumbing are left behind, he said.
A history of inequitable water testing
A 2020 investigation by The Daily Northwestern showed that the city largely failed to test tap water in the predominantly Black Fifth Ward, leaving residents there unsure about the safety of their water.
According to the investigation, between 1992 and 2019, only 1.8% of Evanston’s routine water samples were taken in the Fifth Ward. These tests are conducted every three years, with 30 to 40 samples taken, the majority of which were taken in the Sixth and Seventh wards.
Simmons, who was the Fifth Ward council member at the time, approached city staff after learning about the inequitable testing. With the help of staff members in the Public Works Department, she crafted a new policy stating that at least three water samples must be taken from each ward during the city’s routine water tests, she said.
Simmons said she was saddened, but not surprised, to learn about inequitable testing in the Fifth Ward. “This was one of too many instances of the Black community being excluded and disenfranchised from opportunities for an improved quality of life,” said Simmons.
Black residents already face disadvantages when it comes to housing, income, and fair wages, so added environmental injustices, such as air quality issues and lead-contaminated water, only cause further harm, said Simmons.
Current Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns said the lack of testing in the Fifth Ward was probably not intentional, but rather a product of nonresponse bias. This occurs when members of a working-class community, for example, are busy with other concerns and don’t respond to city surveys, and then in turn, receive fewer city services, he said.
Nonresponse bias leaves certain community members overlooked, which is why city governments need to deliver services in an equitable way that takes nonresponse bias into account, Burns said. These communities need to see real, tangible commitments, said Simmons.
Prioritizing the Fifth Ward in upcoming lead-service-line replacement projects could be a step toward equity and repair, especially because city water testing neglected this ward for so long, Simmons added.
Burns said he isn’t sure how residents in his ward feel about water testing now, but he is committed to ensuring the ward is tested equitably, and pushing for lead pipe replacements.
Is Evanston testing strategically?
Before coming to Evanston, Pratt worked in Racine, Wisconsin, where she headed the city’s private lead-service-line replacement program in addition to working as the city’s Sustainability and Conservation Coordinator.
While living in Racine, Pratt had her home tested for lead, and when the test came back, she learned that the lead level in her water was 25 parts per billion (ppb), which is 10 ppb higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s 15 ppb action level.
Pratt said she learned that homes like hers that have a history of foreclosure tend to have much higher lead levels because the pipes dry out while the property is unoccupied.
The only reason Pratt’s home was tested in the first place was because she worked as a water utility employee in Racine and the city needed volunteers, she said.
Evanston follows EPA testing protocols, according to which 90% of samples need to be at or below the 15 ppb action level, or the city will have to take additional safety steps. Pratt said this is not a good method for determining whether a municipality’s water is safe, because residents’ homes — like her own — can vastly exceed the 15 ppb action level while a water department is still considered to be compliant with EPA lead standards.
The EPA requires Evanston to sample the same homes during its standard tests, Evanston Water Production Bureau Chief Darrell King explained in a memo to the RoundTable. Following EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, these homes must be single-family homes with full lead service lines, he added.
Last year, Evanston tested 10 additional homes in order to allow for better geographical sampling. In selecting new testing sites, the city identified homes that met the Lead and Copper Rule requirements and reached out to the homeowner for permission, King wrote. Very few homeowners volunteer to have their homes sampled, he added.
Evanston city follows the EPA Lead and Copper Rule, which does not prioritize homes with a history of water shutoff. Pratt said she believed if the city prioritized these homes, sampling data might look very different. “You have to wonder, within Evanston are we thinking about which homes to test strategically?” she asked.
Could a Flint water crisis occur in Evanston?
In 2014, a water crisis in Flint, Michigan, put a national spotlight on the issue of lead in drinking water. Lead from old service lines and plumbing leached into Flint’s drinking water, doubling some children’s blood lead levels, according to NRDC. This crisis occurred after the city switched its water supply and didn’t properly treat or test the new source.
Evanston would never switch its water supply, triggering a water crisis like the one in Flint, Pratt said. Still, community members do live with lead pipes, and the more time passes, the more the pipes deteriorate and become dangerous, Pratt said.
“Some [Water Department] staff might say this wasn’t a problem, 10, 20, 30 years ago,” he said. “Well, it’s going to be in the future just because of the age of the infrastructure.”
The EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) is not health-based, as any exposure to lead is damaging, especially for children under 5, Pratt said.
Even low levels of lead are a concern
A few years ago, Burns and his family experienced a scare when District 65 reportedly found high lead levels in some school drinking fountains.
Burns said he took his son, who attended Dawes Elementary School at the time, to get tested. When the hospital called back, he was told his son’s blood lead levels were normal and nothing to be worried about, he said.
Burns pushed for more information, and discovered that his son did have lead present in his blood, but the level was within a normal range, he said.
After doing some research on lead, Burns found that according to the CDC, there is no safe level of lead, especially for children. The blood lead reference values used on a local or national level are a reflection of what public governments can achieve, rather than what is actually considered safe, he said.
“I’ve always kept that in the front of my mind,” said Burns. His family avoids drinking from the tap, preferring filtered and bottled water.
Lead does not belong in the human body, said Dr. Susan Buchanan, an occupational environmental medicine physician and a family physician who works with children suffering from lead poisoning.
Average lead levels are decreasing over time, but the ability to detect abnormalities in neurodevelopment has progressed, said Buchanan. Even in children with low lead levels, scientists can pick up on neurodevelopmental abnormalities, she said.
The toxic substance crosses the blood brain barrier and disrupts the development of neurocognition, Buchanan explained. This can result in lower IQ and behavioral changes that could increase the risk of juvenile delinquency. “These changes are permanent,” she said.
Even slight increases in blood lead level above 3 µg/dL are associated with a greater risk of developing Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children between 5 and 12, according to a 2017 meta-analysis.
A 2020 study in Milwaukee also showed that lead exposure in the first six years of life is associated with an increased risk of being a victim and perpetrator of gun violence. The study involved a cohort of 89,129 individuals, of which 553 perpetrated a lethal or non-lethal shooting and 983 were victims of a shooting. The mean blood lead levels of the perpetrators and the victims were 5.5 μg/dL higher than the cohort as a whole.
If you’re a parent, ‘don’t freak out’
It can be hard to tell when a child is suffering from lead poisoning, so screenings are important, Buchanan said. “Every health care provider in Illinois that sees children is supposed to be doing lead screening on kids,” she said.
Children who live in older houses are at higher risk, and they should be tested for lead once a year until the age of 6, she said.
When asked what advice she might give Evanston parents, Buchanan said if a child’s lead levels do rise above 5 µg/dL, “don’t freak out.” The changes caused by lead are very subtle and in an enriched environment, children can overcome neurodevelopmental losses. Stimulating activities like reading, playing outside and socializing are helpful, she said.
Moving forward, it’s essential that parents find the source of the lead and get the child away from it, said Buchanan. They should make sure they are filtering their drinking water, and if families can afford it, they should replace their lead service lines, she said.
Parents should also keep in mind that lead paint remains the no. 1 cause of lead poisoning, Buchanan said. Lead paint causes much more severe lead poisoning than lead pipes, but leaded paint is no longer as common as the housing stock turns over, she said.
It’s much more difficult to remove leaded pipes, and it’s “very, very expensive,” Buchanan said. This is why the issue has been ignored for so long, she added.
Racine program may offer lessons for Evanston
Evanston is still working out its lead-service-line replacement plan, so it’s unclear how the city will move forward with removing these pipes. Other municipalities, such as Racine, do not place the burden of paying for private lead-service-line replacements on the homeowners.
When Pratt worked in Racine, she headed a program that secured funding to completely cover all costs associated with replacing lead pipes, including yard and sidewalk restoration. The city provided a list of private plumbers, and although homeowners had to contact the plumbers themselves, the city paid for the work as soon as it was finished, she said.
The city of Racine did not expect homeowners to have to pay to replace their private lead service lines. “That would be asking homeowners to pay between $3,000 and $7,000,” she said. “People wouldn’t do it.”
The system wasn’t perfect though, Pratt said. Federal guidelines prevented the city from reimbursing landlords that were businesses, so families who lived in these multifamily rental properties did not receive the same support.
On top of that, Pratt said she discovered that predominantly renter properties were served by lead pipes. Due to socioeconomic disadvantages and Racine’s history of redlining, many people of color in the city are renters, and are thus disproportionately affected by lead pipes, Pratt added.
“We weren’t leading with racial equity in implementing that project in Racine,” she said.
Lead pipes are an environmental justice issue, and cities should move away from loan programs towards more equitable grant programs, Pratt concluded.
“Evanston is supposed to be one of the more progressive areas,” said Ruff. Local leaders should be prioritizing the replacement of these pipes, and they should be doing it in a way that serves the entire community, especially those who have been overlooked in the past, he said.