Lead On: Drinking from a lead straw

Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava

KALEN LUCIANO: Last time on Lead On:

DARRELL KING: We’re in full compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.

TOM NELTNER: So who you’re going to miss are typically working families. You might miss younger families.

DARRELL KING: Well, most of the time, it just really comes down to access. You’d be amazed at how difficult it is to get people to participate.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: I disagree with there being barriers. That is an excuse that I would not tolerate going forward. We have families that need to know if they are vulnerable to unhealthy lead levels in their water.  

KALEN LUCIANO: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Kalen Luciano.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: And I’m Heena Srivastava. This is the second episode of Lead On, a podcast about Evanston’s biased lead testing practices. This podcast is serialized, so if you like what you hear, you might want to go back and listen from the start.

KALEN LUCIANO: After analyzing nearly 30 years of lead testing in Evanston’s water, we found something strange: 60 percent of all samples came from only two of Evanston’s nine wards. These wards — the 6th and 7th — are historically White and wealthy areas in north Evanston. Evanston’s historically Black 5th Ward made up only 1.8 percent of the sampling pool despite holding 10 percent of the city’s population. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, or LCR, requires all community water systems, including cities like Evanston, to routinely sample their water for lead contamination. But our research showed that Evanston’s sampling procedures were not representative of the city’s population. Last episode, we looked into how Evanston’s procedures and the LCR cause biased testing.

KALEN LUCIANO: Evanston’s testing practices are technically legal, but they exclude communities of color. This episode, we wanted to figure out why biased sampling matters and what undersampling means for communities that are left out. So we spoke with Feinberg pediatrician Helen Binns. 

HELEN BINNS: I have been working in the field of lead prevention and lead poisoning treatment since about 1992 when I did an initial research project on exposures to lead in primary care settings in the metropolitan area outside of Chicago. And I have been still doing lead poisoning treatment since then.

KALEN LUCIANO: Binns is kind of a big deal in the lead world. In addition to her decades of clinical work, she also served on the Illinois Lead-Safe Housing Task Force. Over the past thirty years, she’s worked at the center of Chicago’s lead poisoning treatment program and watched the caseload shrink over time. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Binns says the prevalence of lead poisoning is down in the state of Illinois. When she first started in 1992, lead poisoning occurred so frequently that two pediatricians worked one to two full days a week treating patients. Now, Binns sees patients for half a day each month. Still, children who get lead poisoning can face irreversible consequences.

KALEN LUCIANO: Most of Binns’ work focuses on preventing lead exposure. She does this by identifying sources of lead in a child’s environment and getting rid of it as much as possible. The most common ways of exposure are through touching and ingesting lead based paint and dust. 

HELEN BINNS: There was really, very high amount of lead based paint in the U.S. and not until 1978 did we finally have regulations that lowered the lead content in paint, so it drastically reduced that. But there are many homes that are still very full of lead.

KALEN LUCIANO: Binns has never seen a lead poisoning case in which water was the only source, but any amount of lead exposure is harmful. And children are extremely vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning.

HELEN BINNS: At the levels we have today, there’s usually no overt symptoms that are immediate symptoms. But our concern is as the child goes through their developmental stages, they may have more difficulty in their cognitive and integrating thinking processes. You know, we know lead interferes with how the brain is developing. They may have more trouble focusing and with attention. 

KALEN LUCIANO: Lead exposure can impair children’s judgment, reduce their fine motor skills, and decrease their IQ. For adults, lead exposure can elevate blood pressure, impair cognitive abilities, and cause dental and gum disease. 

HELEN BINNS: It’s really across the lifespan that we’re worried about lead. Very small increases of lead. There are a lot of associations, studies that have found the effects of lead are concerning.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: People don’t need to have lead poisoning to experience these symptoms. They can occur even after small amounts of lead exposure, and these problems could linger for generations. 

One study showed the intergenerational effect of lead exposure through testing mice. They started with a bunch of pregnant mice called generation zero. Then they split the mice into four cohorts. One was exposed to stressful events, one was exposed to lead in water, one was exposed to both, and one to neither.

HELEN BINNS: And the stressful event was tying the mice down for 30 minutes during pregnancy. That’s the crazy thing that would probably be very stressful for the mouse. And then they followed each generation. And they found significant effects of both lead and stress on outcomes in the mice. I was like, “Oh my gosh, right?” So this is some sort of, it’s not a change to the DNA structure, but it’s potentially maybe some epigenetic changes on how the DNA is expressed, carrying through intergenerationally.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: This means the DNA doesn’t change, but the lead and stress exposure in generation zero carries over to future generations. 

HELEN BINNS: I think we’re going to be finding if we can ever really assess things long term, you know, we’re not just talking about the life of the child or the family. We may be talking intergenerational effects. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: So where does water fit into all of this? If it’s not the most common way of exposure, why should we be concerned? 

HELEN BINNS: We all need water, and we need our water to be safe. And it’s not just for children that we worry about. It’s really across the lifespan. And, you know, for lead in water, it’s not just a few homes that may be affected. It may be across an entire water system, which is thousands and thousands of homes. So you’re potentially contributing to a higher lead level across a widespread population. And for any individual, you know, it may impact the children in particular. It may not move the button too far on the average IQ rate projected for that population, but you’ve shifted a whole population down. So it just matters because we depend on the safety of our water and we all need water.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: But remember, the LCR’s goal is not just to minimize lead in the drinking water. Its goal is to make sure the city’s corrosion control program works. That means checking if the chemicals that the city puts in the water to coat the pipes and prevent lead leaching actually do their job.

TOM NELTNER: The purpose of the Lead and Copper Rule sampling program — it is not to try to assess how much lead is in the water that people are drinking. It is trying to assess the effectiveness of the corrosion control program.

KALEN LUCIANO: That was Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund. The problem is the LCR’s success depends on one flawed assumption: it doesn’t matter what kind of house the water was sampled from. Here’s their logic: if the water is good quality from the start, it’ll be good quality throughout the whole system. But that’s not true. Differences in pipe materials, age and water flow can all produce drastic differences in lead levels, even between properties that are close together.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Take, for example, Evanston’s sampling data from 2014. Two samples on the same block reported a difference in lead levels of nearly 5 ppb, which is one-third of the EPA’s federal limit. Remember, Illinois requires schools and daycares to notify parents when the lead level exceeds just five ppb because of the potential harm to child development. These discrepancies only get more drastic when you look at Evanston’s water fountain data. 

KALEN LUCIANO: In 2017, the city had to shut down 10 water fountains after finding lead levels exceeding the 15 ppb limit. One water fountain in the 3rd Ward’s Clark Square Park had a lead level of 120 ppb. That’s eight times the federally-recommended limit. But a house nearby had a lead level of less than 1 ppb three years earlier. Part of the reason for the big disparity is that park fountains usually have much longer pipes than the pipes in homes. 

DAVE STONEBACK: The water in the water main theoretically doesn’t have any lead in it. It’s when it’s in the smaller pipe that goes from the water main into your home that that’s where it’s picking up the lead. 

KALEN LUCIANO: This is Dave Stoneback, the public works director for the city of Evanston. 

DAVE STONEBACK: Well, drinking fountains in parks can be quite a distance from the road where the water main’s located so now you might have a 300 foot long lead pipe that’s just sitting there and you’re only getting people to use it, the drinking fountain, once in a while, so you aren’t moving that water through the lead pipe, and it sits there and the lead concentration increases. 

KALEN LUCIANO: The corrosion chemicals should hypothetically protect against lead leaching, but if water isn’t flowing, the chemicals can’t get to the pipe to prevent this. Soon after Evanston shut down water fountains with high lead levels, the city replaced the fixtures and they  decreased. But the takeaway is that lead levels can vary substantially, even across taps in close proximity. And this is especially concerning given how much of Evanston’s pipes are made of lead.

IKE OGBO: Evanston is in a high risk area defined by the Department of Public Health because of its old housing stock, so we do have buildings that were built pre-1978 that perhaps contain lead.  

KALEN LUCIANO: That was Ike Ogbo, the director of Evanston’s health department. They’re responsible for mitigating lead exposure when children show high amounts of lead in their blood.

IKE OGBO: Lead has been banned since 1978, so that is a law given that lead is banned in residential homes. Anyone who’s buying a home that was built prior to 1978 should assume that there are some lead issues with the home. There might be some lead pipes leading from where the main is into the home, so in situations like that, people might not know if their pipes contain lead or were made out of lead. In a nutshell, it is a concern, not just in Evanston, but of course, in Illinois. If you compare our data — Illinois data — to the nation’s, you’ll see that there’s still indeed a concern in Illinois, and especially in the Chicago area, just because of how old our homes are. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Evanston has over 155 miles of lead pipes scattered throughout the city. Health and human services tries to mitigate the risks of lead by raising awareness. The department spreads the word at city events, through flyers and broadcasts and through its website.

IKE OGBO: There are a number of precautions one can take to prevent lead in water, you know, making sure you run the faucet for 5-10 minutes, making sure you run it cold. There are some filters that are certified that you can use now, so there are ways in which one can prevent any type of lead ingestion. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Still, there are limits to how wide of an audience these educational campaigns can reach. Residents who don’t go to city events or the city’s website might not know about the possibility of lead in their water. If they did know about it and wanted to monitor the situation, they would have to pay for a private lab test. Unlike Chicago, Evanston doesn’t provide free testing to its residents. But awareness is just half the problem.

KALEN LUCIANO: About a year after Evanston resident Stephen McComb moved into his new house with his wife and two young children, a plumber dug a hole in his front yard. He was using a large machine to insert a pipe between the water main on the street and McComb’s house. After doing a lot of research, communicating between different plumbers and city officials and getting estimates on the final cost, McComb was now finally getting his lead pipe replaced. This decision came about after he had seen what was happening in Flint, Michigan, where about 100,000 residents had unsafe drinking water.

STEPHEN MCCOMB: With Flint, my awareness of the issue became more pronounced, and we had lived in a previous home where the home inspector had mentioned that we had a lead pipe, it just kind of went past me. I didn’t think of the issue too much. And then all of a sudden, I started looking into the issue. And so then I realized that we had it here as well. In doing the research, it seemed like the only real solution to this is getting rid of it entirely. I have young children now, 10 and six, and the impacts of lead in water is most significant for those under six, so there was just a desire for me to avoid as much as possible things that harm them.

KALEN LUCIANO: It was difficult for McComb to replace his pipes, and it’s even harder for some other Evanston residents. The process is complicated and expensive. Public lead lines go from the water treatment facility, through the streets, and to each house. Residents are responsible for replacing their own private line that leads from the street to the house. In order to get the pipe replaced, the resident first has to replace their side and then get the city to connect the water main on the street to the new pipe. All in all, the city estimates the process to take up to six months and cost an average of $7,000.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: McComb chose to participate in the city’s Lead Line Replacement Program. It allows any homeowner to replace their private line and request the city replace the public line. But the high price tag is a barrier to low-income residents, so the city’s solution was the Lead Service Replacement Loan Program, introduced in 2017. 

KALEN LUCIANO: However, to be eligible for the loan program, you have to match quite a bit of criteria. First, you must be a homeowner, so people who live in multi-unit rentals or apartments are at the whims of their landlord. Then, the city must already be replacing the water main leading to your property. Each year, the city plans to replace 1.5 of the 155 miles of public lead lines. This means that if you are a homeowner living near a public lead line, your odds of being eligible for the loan program are less than one percent in any given year. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Qualified homeowners can then pay a $50 fee to request up to a $4,800 loan, which is used to pay a plumber to replace their private lead line. Homeowners pay back the loan through their bimonthly water bill in $200 installments. In either plan, cost can be prohibitive. This is especially relevant for Evanston’s Black residents, who have a household income disparity of $46,000 compared to their White counterparts. Neltner has done research into just how prohibitive these cost barriers are.

TOM NELTNER: So if you rely on the customer to have to put up money, you’re going to end up with disproportionately impacting low-income and minority people. In other words, those with the money will benefit and those without will suffer and we already know that lead disproportionately impacts minority communities and low-income people in general.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Neltner made these findings when he evaluated Washington, D.C.’s lead line replacement program, which is similar to Evanston’s. Both programs put the financial and logistical burden of replacement on residents.

TOM NELTNER: What we found is that when it waits for the customer to respond and to put up the money, it’s wealthy people. And to be honest, it’s not African Americans or minorities or people of color that are participating. It’s primarily the Whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods that are participating in the program, because they have the resources. It will result in discrimination. From our perspective, under the law, if they’re using federal money and that money results in minorities being disproportionately impacted, even if that’s not the intention, that actually is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And while their intentions may be the best, and I don’t doubt it — I’ve talked to some of the officials in Evanston and I think they’re trying their hardest — you need to build a system that recognizes it and accommodates people of color and low-income people so that they can participate.

KALEN LUCIANO: McComb isn’t blind to these barriers in Evanston. He said he has the financial means to replace his pipes. But he also thinks there’s a huge lack of awareness about the problem, which is why there’s so little attention on this issue. 

STEPHEN MCCOMB: I think fundamentally, it’s just not front of mind. However, if the awareness was brought forward as, you know, a public health concern, I think they would be, they’d be shocked. And they certainly at a minimum, wouldn’t want to expose their family to that.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: This lack of awareness runs deep. We spoke to multiple environmental activists who have been involved in the Evanston community for decades. None of their top priorities were lead in water, and some didn’t even know about this issue of undersampling until we brought it up to them. Clare Tallon Ruen, a water educator in Evanston’s schools, only recently began focusing on water justice issues.

CLARE TALLON RUEN: People like you and other folks have been asking about lead in water, so I’ve been really wanting to take more seriously the question, “What is water justice look like in Evanston? Do we have water justice issues and what are they?” So that’s kind of what’s on my hot plate right now.

KALEN LUCIANO: Tallon Ruen is just scratching the surface of these water justice issues. She’s been speaking with aldermen about water shutoffs in Evanston and surveying residents to see how much they trust their drinking water. She’s pushing for City Council to pass a plan to replace all lead pipes and fund those who can’t afford to replace theirs. 

CLARE TALLON RUEN: The problem of lead in water is being addressed with the orthophosphate that the city puts into the water. So I think that short of replacing the pipes I think the city is doing the right thing and I think people can feel confident that our water is safe from lead.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: And this gets to the root of the problem. Evanston residents like Tallon Ruen trust their water because the city is passing LCR standards. But how can residents trust it if the data is underrepresenting some communities? 

In 2017, the city recognized its unrepresentative sample. In the wake of the Flint water crisis, Evanston conducted non-compliance sampling of an additional 14 houses from underrepresented wards. But the 5th ward, which hadn’t been tested since 2002, had only one sample collected from it. This went unquestioned by those who pushed for additional testing, including Richard Lanyon. He was a member of the Evanston Utilities Commission responsible for water services.

RICHARD LANYON: The issue of lead, of course, we did talk about because of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, but there was never an issue with lead exceeding the standards in the water distribution system.

KALEN LUCIANO: So you don’t think there’s any issues with lead in drinking water?

RICHARD LANYON: I don’t believe there have been any issues with lead in the drinking water.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: Lanyon isn’t alone on this. Former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl prioritized water issues during her time in office, but her priority was Lake Michigan, not lead. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: What was your focus? 

ELIZABETH TISDAHL: Trying to make industries on the lake not pollute the lake. Lead was not the top of the list. I’m in the 7th Ward, so I particularly remember the 6th and 7th were being tested way too much and the rest of the community not enough. But it was not clear that it was unsafe.

KALEN LUCIANO: From water activists all the way to the former mayor, the lead testing disparity has gone unresolved since the LCR required testing in 1992. With each testing period,  the city reports that all standards are being met, and this is enough to keep everyone led on. But can underrepresented communities trust results for a test that never served them? 

REGINA SANT’ANNA: I think when I helped my elderly neighbor carry like hundreds of boxes of water bottles into her kitchen — she’s 97 years old, and she’s African American. She’s lived in this neighborhood for 65 years. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: This is 2nd Ward resident Regina Sant’Anna. She lives on the border of the 2nd and 5th Ward, and has noticed that some of her neighbors are concerned about their water quality.

REGINA SANT’ANNA: And I’m not going to ever try to convince her to have a different way of dealing with how she drinks her water but I was just thinking that that’s a lot of money that she is spending. And I wish I could know if the quality of water that we are drinking or she is drinking is good enough that she could stop investing in bottled water. At times in underserved communities of color, brown and Black, you have a lot of people investing in water and having to put in your budget plastic bottled water because you do not trust the water systems.

JANET ALEXANDER DAVIS: I’m part of Environmental Justice Evanston and we’re so overwhelmed with what we’ve been doing.

KALEN LUCIANO: That’s 5th Ward activist Janet Alexander Davis. She worked with the group to pass a resolution through City Council to support environmental justice in Evanston, recognize the disproportionate harm to communities of color and outline “specific, corrective actions the City will take to support and protect the health and well-being of all residents.” 

JANET ALEXANDER DAVIS: We got our resolution through the City Council and now we’re working on ordinances, so I can’t take on anything else. You know, and this pisses me off because this should be different than this.

KALEN LUCIANO: She’s also part of the west Evanston block club, but she said those meetings don’t usually focus on lead levels. 

JANET ALEXANDER DAVIS: Black and brown people, a lot of us are lower income. I guess we’re middle class supposedly. Thinking about some of the more of the environmental issues we were talking about today may not be on the radar of some of the people. It’s because people are just trying to live their life one day at a time and make it. It’s not they don’t care. It’s that they have to deal with that day to day.

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: So, those who are being tested trust their water. Those who aren’t might not, but they have so many other issues to focus on. How can anyone be concerned about lead if no one is telling them there are whole communities missing from the sample? Next time on Lead On… 

JANET ALEXANDER DAVIS: There is so much that regular people have to know in order to fight the good fight. You have no idea how these things are really put together and how you can change it. It’s really difficult.

REUEL ROGERS: It’s a public good. It’s literally a public health good. And if those neighborhoods aren’t included fully in the water testing, it means they have less access to this public health good.

NANCY LOEB: The time we’re living in right now under the Trump administration and the Trump EPA, which is focused not on protecting the environment or health, but much more focused on limiting any costs to industry and allowing wanton exploitation of our natural resources and this horrifying deregulatory agenda.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: Hi. OK, so, we are going to pass a resolution. Thank you for all your advocacy.

KALEN LUCIANO: …we look at the LCR’s future and where Evanston is going from here. Thanks for listening. 

HEENA SRIVASTAVA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Heena Srivastava. Thanks for listening. This episode was reported and produced by me, Heena Srivastava and Kalen Luciano. The In Focus editors of The Daily are Gabby Birenbaum and Andrea Bian. The audio editor is Alex Chun. The digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Jacob Ohara. The editor in chief is Marissa Martinez. Parts of this story were reported prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Email: [email protected], [email protected]  

Twitter: @kalenluciano, @HeenaSriv

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