flint-waterWhile the lead contamination in Flint has captured the nation, it has also raised questions about the safety of drinking water in other cities across the United States. Here in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune reports, 80% of properties in Chicago are hooked up to water service lines made of lead. Any home built before 1986 (the year lead pipes were banned) could have lead water service pipes. The Trib reports:

In a peer-reviewed study, researchers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found alarming levels of the brain-damaging metal can flow out of household faucets for years after construction work disrupts service lines that connect buildings to the city’s water system.

The study also found the city’s testing protocols — based on federal rules — are likely to miss high concentrations of lead in drinking water.

Yet when city officials notify homeowners about new water mains being installed, the letters do not mention potential lead hazards. Residents are advised merely to flush all faucets and hose taps for several minutes after the work is completed to remove any “particulates,” a solution EPA scientists and independent experts say is grossly inadequate.

While city officials claim the water is safe to drink and that Chicago complies with the 1991 Lead and Copper rule, accurate and comprehensive testing in the city is lacking.

[T]he federal rule requires only 50 homes be tested every three years in Chicago, a city of 2.7 million people with more lead service lines than any other U.S. municipality.

Moreover, the rules require utilities to check only the first liter of water drawn in the morning. The EPA study found that although the first liter often is lead-free, high levels of the toxic metal can flow through taps for several minutes afterward, depending in part on the length of the service line between the home and street.

Studies have shown that exposure to even small amounts of lead can permanently damage the developing brains of children, lowering IQ and increasing the risk of learning disabilities, aggression and criminal behavior later in life.

While Chicago water may be safe to drink, for now, the EPA warns that the only way to ensure safety is the total and complete removal of all lead service lines. A project like that would be a tremendous undertaking for a city already crippled by debt and budget issues.

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