Illinois officials look to improve monitoring, testing of lead levels in water

Rishika Dugyala, Assistant City Editor

Although many Illinois communities such as Evanston have not experienced recent issues with lead poisoning, state officials are working to improve practices for monitoring and testing lead levels in the water in light of the crisis in Flint, Michigan and incidents in Illinois.

In the past three years, there have been 19 lead action level exceedances among Illinois community water supplies, said Kim Biggs, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. However, after each of these 19 communities received their individual reports, Biggs said community officials took the additional steps to protect their water supplies as required by the Lead and Copper Rule, a treatment technique instructing public water systems to take certain actions to minimize lead and copper in drinking water.  

In September 2015, Flint’s Hurley Medical Center released a study revealing the proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood nearly doubled after the city switched to using the Flint River as its water source in 2014.

Evanston’s water production bureau chief Darrell King said the city has not experienced any issues with lead since 1992 when the water department added a protective layer of phosphate into the water treatment plant’s pipes, preventing lead from contaminating the water.

King said Evanston was awarded reduced monitoring status and only has to sample the water for lead every three years because of the success of their safety precautions. The city has yet to exceed the lead action level of 15 parts per billion in more than 10 percent of their samples since the addition of the phosphate barrier, King said.

“What happened in Flint, Michigan is completely different. They changed water sources and it created a lot of problems, more than just lead,” King said. “In Evanston, our water source hasn’t changed. We use Lake Michigan water, and it’s a really good source.”

Biggs said both Illinois EPA and the Illinois Department of Public Health are working together to identify what improvements can be made statewide to add additional public health protection even as the existing Lead and Copper Rule is being implemented.

For example, the agencies are requiring water systems to notify individual users if the sample results from their homes exceeded the lead action level, Biggs said. Homeowners will also be provided educational materials with instructions for flushing practices and ways to reduce lead exposure, Biggs added. Finally, officials have mandated that water systems reevaluate their monitoring site plans and update any inventory they have on their lead service lines.

Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the agencies have also amended the Illinois Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, a labeling law covering children’s jewelry, toys and child care articles, among other items sold in the state.

Arnold said revisions include clarifying statutory language, eliminating outdated language and streamlining enforcement, authorizing the Department to implement administrative processes to impose penalties for violating the Act.

“We know there will be new recommendations and requirements that will be coming from US EPA,” Biggs said. “But until that happens, Illinois wants to go ahead and take our own steps to protect public health as much as possible. We just want to ensure that residents can be confident in the water that they’re receiving and that public water suppliers are providing as much information to those residents on their safety.”

Galesburg, a city in Illinois’ Knox County, has followed Evanston’s example of adding a phosphate inhibitor to the pipelines. The city’s lead levels in the water supply were above the federal standard for 22 of the last 30 years, including in 2015, Peter Schwartzman, a Galesburg alderman, said.

“The main pipes in the street and the pipes coming from the water source which is about 30 miles west of here, don’t have lead and are not providing lead in the water,” Schwartzman said. “The water that comes into Galesburg is very good water. It’s just that some residences have lead pipes leading from the street into their homes, and many of the older homes are like that.”

The homes experiencing elevated lead levels are not only older, but are also found in the poorer neighborhoods at Galesburg, Schwartzman said. Schwartzman said he will continue to push the city to provide feasible solutions for poorer communities, something Biggs said the EPA hopes to do as well statewide.

“Nothing’s been finalized at this point, “ Biggs said. “But at the federal level, I do expect there will be some final regulations or new programs put in place that will assist communities that otherwise don’t have the financial means to address lead.”

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