Could Flint's Water Crisis Happen Here?
Yes, because older homes in Chicago and Cook County may have lead pipes between the water main in the street and the faucet in the home. Even though water filtered from Lake Michigan is treated with chemicals to prevent leaching of lead from old pipes, if water is left standing for some time then some lead may leach from these pipes and show up in the water flowing from the faucet.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the air, soil, and water. The chemical symbol for lead, "Pb" comes from the Latin word plumbum, which is the root of the word "plumbing." Lead was often used in piping and plumbing because it is leak resistant and relatively malleable, allowing it take on a variety of shapes. Over time, scientists and public health officials learned about the adverse effects of lead consumption on human health, and federal lawmakers included a prohibition against any plumbing fixtures that were not lead-free after June 1986. Nevertheless, many people live in older neighborhoods that use lead pipes for conveying drinking water. The American Water Works Association recently estimated that as many as 6.5 million water pipes throughout the United States are made, in part, from lead.
But, no, I doubt lead contamination would happen here on the scale of the crisis in Flint, Michigan. I could be wrong, because examples of craven, dishonest, or ill-equipped public officials emerge in places near and far (look up Crestwood, IL water contamination), but I have confidence in both the professionalism and operation of the public water utilities that treat and deliver our drinking water here in Chicago and Cook County, and I have confidence in the fierce activism of local public health, environmental, and social justice advocacy organizations (look up BP's plans to discharge increased amounts of ammonia and suspended solids into Lake Michigan in 2007).
According to the Water Quality Association (WQA), based in Illinois, "nearly all the lead in users' tap water is a result of corrosion resulting from materials containing lead coming into contact with water after it leaves the treatment plant." Lead solder used in copper piping, lead service connections, even brass fixtures can leach lead into water.
In Flint, when the emergency manager overseeing Flint's governance decided to switch the water supply from Detroit's municipal utility to the Flint River, the water utility did not add certain chemicals to the water as is done by most water filtration systems serving cities with older pipes. These chemicals help to prevent lead from leaching into water conveyed by old pipes.
Chicago, Evanston, Wilmette and Glencoe all have water filtration plants that withdraw water from Lake Michigan, treat it and deliver it to residents, businesses and industries throughout Cook County. Public water utilities test the water leaving their plants numerous times a day and post water quality reports annually. Even these public utilities, however, warn about the dangers of lead leaching from old pipes. Here's what Evanston posted in its 2014 water quality report:
Remember, there is no detectable lead in the water provided to the Evanston community. Lead enters the water from lead solder, lead pipes or plumbing fixtures in the home. If present, elevated levels of lead can cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and young children. Lead in drinking water is primarily from materials and components associated with service lines and home plumbing. The Evanston Water Utility is responsible for providing high quality drinking water, but cannot control the variety of materials used in plumbing components. When your water has been sitting for several hours, you can minimize the potential for lead exposure by flushing your tap for 30 seconds to 2 minutes before using water for drinking or cooking. If you are concerned about lead in your water, you may wish to have your water tested. Information on lead in drinking water, testing methods, and steps you can take to minimize exposure is available from the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 or at http://www.epa.gov/learn-issues/water-resources#drinking-water
Why not just replace old pipes? Good question. It can be done, but it's very costly - and many of the problems reside in private laterals leading from the public water main to people's homes. Chicago has raised its water and sewer rates over the last few years and has devoted the increased revenues to repairing, relining, and replacing old pipes. I've heard that the estimate to replace Flint's aging pipes would be nearly a billion dollars - that for a city of 102,000 residents!
Instead, most public water utilities add chemicals to the water supply that interact with the piping to help prevent leaching of dangerous contaminants like lead. Phosphates-specifically orthophosphates-are some of the most commonly used chemicals for preventing lead leaching because they are safe for human consumption and very small quantities are effective at coating pipes. The City of Chicago, Evanston, Glencoe, and Wilmette add a blended polyphosphate mix to their water supplies during the treatment phase to reduce leaching. "Blended phosphates" contain a range of phosphates formulated to produce a protective coating inside the pipe while also minimizing chemical reactions in the water that would otherwise increase corrosion.
(A side note: if the water emerging from your tap is brown or discolored, the discoloration is due to oxidized iron resulting from exposure to chlorine added at the water treatment plant to kill bacteria. The WQA FAQ sheet on Lead in Drinking Water is an excellent resource with links to accredited water testing laboratories and treatment methods for home use.)
By the way, the Chicago Department of Water Management provides free water quality testing to city residents who make a request by calling 311. This service is not available, however, to those in surrounding suburbs whose municipalities purchase water from Chicago. Lake Michigan naturally contains no detectable levels of lead and usually has a relatively neutral pH of 7.8 which reduces rates of corrosion, making it a safe water source for those concerned about lead.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency provides a list of labs that are accredited for chemical analyses and/or microbiological analyses of tap water. These labs generally provide a kit to residents who can mail back water samples. While most of the labs charge fees for their services, Culligan Analytical Laboratory advertises basic water quality testing for free.
In sum, I drink Chicago water, proudly, daily. Those of us who live here are truly fortunate to have access to a high-quality, ample source of fresh water for drinking, for recreation, for industry and commerce. It's my job, as a member of the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, to protect Lake Michigan as a precious resource, but it's our shared responsibility -- all of us -- to be careful and caring stewards. Because water matters.