CN March 2 2017

Lead has been in our lives for almost as long as humans have been able to use tools. It’s heavy, so it’s great for “weaponizing”. It’s malleable and moldable, so you can make lots of stuff out of it. One of those things is pipe. Lead underground service pipes have been so durable that in cities around the world these pipes are still in the ground, having carried water for over a century.

But, as we now know, there is no safe level of lead in the human body. So we may never know how much damage lead has done to the brains of generations of people, worming its way in through the air (as a gasoline additive) through the mouth (kids eating eat paint chips) and through our water systems.

“Lead is more diffuse in the environment today,”  explains City Bureau reporter Nissa Rhee, “So we’re not just getting it from gasoline…like in the past. We’re getting it from a lot of different sources, and it’s the cumulative effect that’s really dangerous. And you know, while it’s much better than it was in the 60s, still 80,000 kids under 6 had lead poisoning last year in the United States, so that’s not a small number.”

“Chicago is something of a Ground Zero for lead pipes,” adds City Bureau’s Darryl Holliday. “The estimate was around 80% of lead pipes, or pipes in the City that go from the service line to homes with lead added up to about 400,000 potential lead service pipes. The city is not taking responsibility for those pipes, so that leaves it up to homeowners.

The water service pipes are a major focus of an extensive special issue of South Side Weekly, reported by City Bureau. It’s called Living With Lead. Rhee says that the lead service lines have become a serious concern in Chicago because of the City’s massive effort to replace 900 miles of water mains. When the lead service lines to peoples’ houses are disconnected from the old mains, they’re re-connected to the new one. But that process disturbs the lead in the walls of the pipe, and sends some amount of lead into the home’s water system. So should the little pipe be replaced at the same time as the big one? Not in Chicago, Rhee explains.

“In a lot of places the lead service line that connects the water mains and the person’s house is either partially owned by the City or completely owned by the City. But in Chicago it’s completely the homeowners’ responsibility. So even though we have an opportunity to, while they are digging up the water mains and replacing them, which is a much-needed service, you know they could go in there and replace the connecting pipes too. But they aren’t doing that because that’s not owned by the City.”

Although we’re all probably carrying around a bunch of lead in our bodies, Rhee says the really critical concern is with the youngest children.

“It’s really important,” she says, “especially if you have children, to think about where lead might be in the environment and to get tested. It’s very easy to go to your pediatrician, your primary care doctor, get a blood test, quickly get results back, and you know right away if you’re okay.”

If you’d like access to information about lead and how to get tested, City Bureau can help. just text the word “lead to 312-697-1791.

We asked whether the team’s research touched on the concern that high lead levels, ingested 15-20 years ago, might play a role in the violence being committed by young people who grew up in elevated lead environments. Holliday said that, yes, they considered it.

“We began on an assumption that violence and environmental health could be correlated. I think over time we’ve discarded that. Through the reporting we’ve dug deeper than just making a pure one to one association because there isn’t one, but we do know that lead causes IQ drops. It causes increased aggression. There are real mechanical practical things that happen when you’re exposed to lead.”

But, although there are definite ‘hot spots” in south and west side communities where buildings haven’t been remodeled to eliminate lead paint and other hazards, Rhee revealed something else.

“We talked to one researcher who said they were seeing a lot of lead issues coming up in gentrifying communities where you have people coming into these old bungalows, say, tearing things up without taking the proper precautions and creating a big mess of dust. And that’s a problem not only for the people who live there, but their neighbors when the dust travels.”

So, although our houses and apartments had great lead hazards in the old paint, removing it can be more dangerous if it isn’t done properly.

Finally, the situation in Flint, Michigan. How, if at all, does it relate to our lives in Chicago?

“everyone is concerned about Flint,’ Rhee explains, “but really the levels of lead in children that they were seeing in Flint we’ve been seeing in Chicago for years. So it’s just not getting the same attention, and it’s something that really we thought is deserving of the public’s attention and awareness.”

Read Living With Lead Here

We think our TV show’s pretty good radio, too. Listen on Sound Cloud

And read the full transcript of this show HERE:cn-transcript-feb-23-2015



About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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