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Is Lead Exposure A Problem In Your 'Hood? New Service Will Tell You

By Joe Ward | December 20, 2016 5:10am
 An old cast iron pipe that burst beneath the southeast corner of Armitage and Damen.
An old cast iron pipe that burst beneath the southeast corner of Armitage and Damen.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser (File)

CHICAGO — Calling Chicago "ground zero" for lead water pipes, a nonprofit media organization has launched a service that will give residents neighborhood-level data on exposure to lead poisoning.

City Bureau, the Woodlawn-based journalism group, unveiled a text-message service this week that sends data on public spaces with lead pipes supplying drinking water as well as the number of children who've tested positive for lead poisoning.

The service is part of a three-month investigation into the pervasiveness of lead pipes throughout Chicago, documented in a recent edition of South Side Weekly.

Exposure to lead has plagued American society for decades, causing legislators to outlaw lead in paint, gas and even pipes, though lead pipes carrying drinking water to Chicago homes and other buildings are still prevalent.

City Bureau dubbed Chicago "ground zero" for lead water pipes because their use was actually mandated by city code until 1986, when Congress banned the product, said Nissa Rhee, lead reporter for City Bureau's project. Other major cities started to phase out lead pipe use in the 1950s, she said.

"Chicago is really an outlier here," Rhee said. "We've been Flint for years."

The crisis in Flint, Mich., where residents have been without safe drinking water for over a year, has put lead poisoning back into the national conversation.

It prompted CPS to check its water drinking sources, when the district found at least 113 schools to have at least one drinking source with high levels of lead. Testing of drinking fountains on Chicago Park District property showed that 43 percent of parks have a problem with lead.

"We're really having a moment," Rhee said of the discussion around lead. "Now is the time to try and find solutions to this problem."

Chicago does not know the extent of its lead pipe problem, Rhee said, because the city does not have a database of their use on private property.

Lead pipes are used primarily to draw water from the city's water mains into private dwellings, Rhee said. That means that the pipes reside on public property, and it is therefore the property owner's responsibility to replace the pipes, she said.

Some dwellings are more likely to have lead pipes than others, Rhee said. Lead pipes only go up to a certain diameter, and so aren't big enough to supply enough water to large apartment complexes, high-rise offices and other large buildings.

Learning which public buildings and how many have tested for lead poisoning in your area can help paint a picture of your exposure to lead. To learn more, text 312-697-1791 with the word "lead." It will prompt you for your zip code to get local data.

And to find out if your home or drinking water may be contaminated, Rhee said the best thing to do is be proactive. Residents can call the city's lead hotline at 312-747-5323 to learn more about lead inspections, receiving a lead testing kit and information on doctors who test for lead.

"The best thing is to educate yourself," Rhee said.

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