With the lead piping
Millions of Americans still get their drinking water from lead pipes
Over a century has passed since the dangers of consuming lead became widely known. Ingesting even small quantities damages young brains and may raise the risk of heart problems. Yet residents of Chicago—and many other cities—still mostly swig from taps fed by lead pipes. About 400,000 lead service lines connect to the mains in the Windy City, linking about four in five of all houses there. One study of nearly 3,000 homes, two years ago, found two-thirds had elevated levels of lead in their water.
In Chicago some residents are told to flush their taps before drinking, to fit filters or avoid boiled water (doing so can concentrate higher levels of lead). Older houses in poorer districts may be worst affected. Since this problem has been identified for so long,why does it persist? The city’s water woes can be blamed in part on the historic clout of industrial lobbyists and a union of plumbers. In the last century, even as other cities stopped installing the pipes or started removing them, they nudged Chicago’s political bosses to set rules making lead pipes compulsory. That lasted until a federal ban on new lead pipes in 1986. More than three decades on, Lori Lightfoot recently became the first mayor to set out a plan to fix things. The catch? It will cost $8.5bn, which the city government does not have. At the current pace of replacing fewer than 800 pipes a year, notes an alderman, residents won’t all get lead-free water until the mid-26th century.
Mayors are more alert to the problem these days, especially since the water crisis in 2014 in Flint, Michigan exposed residents to high levels of lead leaching from their pipes. Flint is spending $100m upgrading its system. Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defence Council, who has campaigned on the issue for 30 years, says thousands of water systems across the country, serving tens of millions of people, still face “serious problems”. The new attention to the problem encourages him.