68% of Kids in Chicago Exposed to Lead in Water

That's 129K children under 6, researchers say
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 19, 2024 7:33 AM CDT
129K Kids in Chicago Exposed to Lead in Water
Troy Hernandez, an environmental justice activist with Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization shows a piece of lead pipe obtained from his residence during his home renovation, Friday, April 9, 2021 in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.   (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

More than two-thirds of kids aged 5 or younger in Chicago are exposed to lead in drinking water, which can mean many harmful consequences, according to a new study. The Guardian previously analyzed 24,000 city water tests, finding water from a third of homes contained lead above 5 parts per billion, the federal limit in bottled drinking water. Inspired by that work, researchers at Johns Hopkins and Stanford universities used artificial intelligence to analyze 38,385 tap water tests conducted from 2016 to 2023 plus neighborhood demographics and state blood samples, the Guardian reports. They concluded childhood lead exposure is "widespread" in the city, affecting 68% of children under 6—some 129,000—with Black and Hispanic populations disproportionately exposed.

"I think residents have reason to be concerned," says Benjamin Huynh, lead author of the study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, per the Guardian. "I think this should be a call to get your water tested for lead, see what the results are, then make your decisions accordingly." No level of lead consumption is considered safe, according to the federal government, which is why researchers looked for any contamination above 1 part per billion, or "the lowest detectable level of lead," according to a release. Even low levels of exposure in children have been linked to "damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells," according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The study estimates 19% of children who use unfiltered tap water as their primary drinking source have twice as much lead in their blood as others. Yet the city says its water meets EPA standards. Under EPA rules, cities are only required to notify the public when a small sample of homes test above 15 parts per billion, the Guardian reports. But "an action level set by EPA is not meant to be used as individual guidance," Huynh says, per the Chicago Sun-Times, stressing the potential harm to children. The city said "we will continuously work towards a future where no child in Chicago is at risk of lead poisoning." However, the EPA, while calling on most cities to replace lead service lines within a decade, has given Chicago 40 years as it has the most lead service lines of any US city, with 400,000. (More Chicago stories.)

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