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Almost 70% of Young Kids in Chicago Are Exposed to Lead in Tap Water
  • Posted March 20, 2024

Almost 70% of Young Kids in Chicago Are Exposed to Lead in Tap Water

More than two-thirds of Chicago kids younger than 6 live in homes with tap water tainted by lead, a new analysis says.

There are detectable levels of lead in the drinking water supplied to 68% of young children in the Windy City, say researchers with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“The extent of lead contamination of tap water in Chicago is disheartening -- it's not something we should be seeing in 2024,” lead researcher Benjamin Huynh, an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, said in a news release.

There is no “safe” exposure level for lead, a toxin proven to stunt children's physical and mental development, researchers said.

Lead water pipes were banned in the U.S. in 1986, but many cities still have pipes installed prior to the ban, researchers said in background notes. Across the United States, more than 9.2 million households get their drinking water through lead pipes and service lines.

Chicago has more of these than any other U.S. city, researchers noted – an estimated 400,000 lead pipes that supply water to as many as 2.7 million people.

For this study, researchers used AI to estimate overall lead exposure in Chicago based on nearly 38,400 tap water tests taken from 2016 to 2023.

Researchers searched for the lowest detectable level of lead in these water tests, which is one part per billion. That's roughly the equivalent of a half-teaspoon of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

More than two-thirds of the tests (69%) exceeded that level, researchers said.

Based on that, the AI program predicted that lead-contaminated water likely is being fed to 75% of Chicago's residential city blocks, covering 68% of kids under 6 years old.

The analysis also estimated that about 1 in 5 (19%) Chicago children exposed to lead drink unfiltered tap water as their primary water source. These children have roughly double the amount of lead in their blood as unexposed kids, researchers said.

Researchers also found racial disparities in exposure to lead-contaminated drinking water.

For every 10 percentage-point increase in Black and Hispanic families on a block, there were 4% and 11% respective increases in having lead-contaminated drinking water, the analysis found. There was also 3% and 6% less chance that their water had been tested for lead.

The Environmental Protection Agency's current “action” level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion, researchers said. At that level, a city has to step in and intervene for residents' health.

About 9% of the water tests had lead levels over 15 parts per billion, results show.

The EPA has proposed that U.S. cities replace all lead water service lines within a decade, researchers said. Chicago would be given 40 years to comply, given the widespread use of lead pipes.

The new study was published March 18 in JAMA Pediatrics.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on the health effects of lead exposure.

SOURCE: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, news release, March 18, 2024

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