City officials insist lead in drinking water is not widespread threat, most Chicagoans not at risk

After Flint, Michigan discovered its drinking water was poisoned with lead, some took a closer look in Chicago. Experts say our water is safe and clean, but there is concern about some of the pipes that water travels through.

City officials insist lead in Chicago’s water is neither a big nor widespread threat. But they do advise taking precautions if you're in a neighborhood where new water pipes were recently installed, because it may have knocked some old lead loose in the final few feet of pipe going into your home.

Chicagoans have taken it for granted since the city was founded. Until the last decade or so, many homes didn't even have water meters, simply paying a flat fee for the city to pump a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of the stuff from Lake Michigan.

City Hall began charging more for water when it needed to replace our aging underground network of pipes. That work has had one unintended side-effect: knocking loose some poisonous lead used in the old pipes, before we knew lead could cause high blood pressure in adults and brain damage in infants.

“We've seen in our testing some low levels. And we've seen some high levels,” said Miguel Del Toral of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It varies significantly from home to home.”

Del Toral spoke in Pilsen Tuesday night about his work on a national task force drawing up new guidelines to protect Americans against lead in drinking water. 

City Hall's top public health and water officials insist most Chicagoans are not at risk, and anyone concerned may dial 3-1-1 to request a test of their own drinking water.

“And we'll test it. From call to actual test results, is probably on the order of three weeks,” said Water Commissioner Tom Powers.

Experts add there is a simple fix.

“If you use a water filter that's certified to remove lead, they're very effective at doing that, if they're maintained,” Del Toral added.

To get the lead out, the city's now adding a microscopic amount of phosphate to the water. Harmless to humans, it binds with the water pipes and forms a coating to prevent lead from leaking.