Four years after the Flint water crisis began, a region primarily inhabited by Latinx people is experiencing high levels of lead in its tap water.
Homes in Berwyn and Cicero, two Chicago suburbs, were tested during the past year for lead and showed dangerous levels. Researchers say it could mean that thousands of other dwellings are at risk. According to the Chicago Tribune:
Suspicious of public officials telling them their water was safe, community activists sought assistance from the same group of Virginia Tech researchers who helped expose lead contamination and other hazards in Flint, Michigan, drinking water in 2015. They have distributed more than 100 testing kits in the two suburbs, and in 11 of the 17 homes where samples have been analyzed so far, lead concentrations in the first liter drawn from household taps exceeded 5 parts per billion—the maximum allowed in bottled water by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Four of the homes tested and analyzed—two each in Berwyn and Cicero—had at least one sample with lead levels exceeding 40 ppb, a threshold the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency once said posed an “imminent and substantial threat to the health of children and pregnant women."
In the past, homes and apartment buildings in the United States could be built with lead pipes to carry drinking water from municipal street water mains. In 1986, Congress banned their use because of the potential health hazards of lead; it can damage the brain and nervous system and slow growth and development in children. As the Tribune reports, “Like dozens of other suburbs, Berwyn and Cicero rely on treated Lake Michigan water from Chicago that generally is lead-free when it leaves city treatment plants. The water can become contaminated as it passes through aging service lines made of lead, a hazard that is of particular concern in Illinois and other states with tens of thousands of older homes.”
In response to the high levels of lead found in Flint drinking water in 2014, the Michigan city is currently replacing all service lines made of the metal. It is a practice that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends for all municipalities with lead pipes. Yet, says the Tribune, “officials have been deterred so far by the high cost of a replacement program and legal questions about who should pay. Depending on local laws, the pipes may be considered private property or jointly owned by the water system and homeowners.” In Flint, it is estimated that replacing 18,000 pipes will cost approximately $97 million and will take until 2020 to complete.
“These [water testing] results should be concerning to anyone, not just in the city but in the suburbs,” Siddhartha Roy, one of the Virginia Tech researchers told the Tribune. “They could have problems, too.”
The team of researchers from Virginia Tech and Ixchel, a nonprofit created in 2016 to address environmental hazards in the Cicero area, are continuing to distribute water testing kits and provide information to residents at community centers, churches and hair salons. Some participants, who in the past were told by government officials that their water was safe, are distrustful of politicians.
“I want to make sure that something like Flint doesn’t happen here,” said Bianca Baker, a resident from Cicero who recently obtained a testing kit. “Anytime you are talking about water, you are talking about life.”