Report reveals mass lead contamination in water of poor Chicago communities

Like Jackson, Mississippi, Flint, Michigan, and countless other cities throughout the country, Chicago’s working-class communities are being poisoned by their water supply. A report published in The Guardian that so far is being ignored by mainstream media found unsafe levels of lead in 1,000 out of the 24,000 households tested. As if that isn’t damning itself, nine out of the top 10 zip codes with the highest lead levels tested were in Black or Latino neighborhoods.

The report found that, “One home, in the majority-Black neighborhood of South Chicago, had lead levels of 1,100 parts per billion — 73 times the Environmental Protection Agency limit of 15 ppb.”

Lead is commonly known to cause high blood pressure, kidney problems, reproductive issues, and even brain damage and anemia at higher levels of exposure. Despite this, the EPA only requires residents to be notified if at least 10% of homes test over the 15 ppb limit. These loose federal restrictions allow for the ongoing criminal negligence by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her predecessors.

The Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, has a standard for bottled water that lead should not exceed 5 ppb. More than 8,000 of the households tested exceeded that limit. That’s more than one third.

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests no more than 1 ppb on school drinking fountains, which 71% of the households measured in the aforementioned study don’t meet. That means at least seven out of 10 children in Chicago could be drinking unsafe levels of lead at school.

Much of Chicago's tap water contains dangerous lead levels. Liberation photo
Much of Chicago’s tap water contains dangerous lead levels. Liberation photo

Lead is a neurotoxin. There is no level of lead in water that can be truly safe to drink.

Equity Service Line Replacement Program a failure

Lightfoot rolled out a program through the Chicago Department of Water to replace 400,000 lead service lines throughout the city in September 2020. As of Sept. 19 of this year, only 154 were replaced.

Lightfoot announced an expansion of the program in May, but it is still well short of the 650 line goal she set by the end of 2021. In fact, it would take over 500 years to complete the lead removal at the pace set in 2020.

It would cost between $8 billion and $10 billion to replace all of Chicago’s lead lines. That sounds like a big number, but is just five to six times the annual Chicago Police Department budget.

The problem is systemic

Several other major U.S. cities have high levels of lead in their water, including Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, Newark, Detroit and Washington, D.C. This includes, but is not limited to homes, schools and day care centers.

Under the U.S. profit-driven capitalist system no one is held accountable for this criminal neglect. If the ruling elite were forced to acknowledge and solve the water contamination crisis, it would likely come at their expense.

While nearly $60 billion has already been or is promised to be spent by the United States to fuel the war in Ukraine, it would cost $45 billion to $60 billion to replace all lead pipes throughout the country. Despite this, last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill only allocated $15 billion to replace lead pipes. 

The capitalist system is incapable of solving the very crises it creates because it will always prioritize profits for the rich over the safety of the people. And it is thousands of Black, Latino, Native and poor working-class communities which pay the price. Only a socialist transformation of society can guarantee a future with clean water for our country’s children and working people.

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