High levels of lead in water can have devastating health effects, especially in children, including damage to the brain and nervous system, as well as learning and behavior problems.
It’s a problem felt acutely in Illinois, which has about 700,000 lead service lines and a million more of unknown origin, more than any other state. Governor JB Pritzker’s proposed budget sets aside nearly half a billion dollars in federal funds to tackle the problem, but some advocates want more funding — specifically, targeted funding to remove lead pipes connected to daycares.
In 2017, the state of Illinois began requiring daycares to test their water for lead levels and come up with a mitigation plan if they found any. El Hogar Del Ninowhich serves families in the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village, discovered that there were a handful of water taps with high levels of lead.
“What we do exceptionally well here at El Hogar del Niño is early childhood,” said executive director Mario Perez. “What we don’t do well, or at least what we don’t know about, are complex environmental issues.”
But they got help through the nonprofit raisewho installed water filters and eventually had the lead service line to the building replaced.
“If we had been forced to change them ourselves, we would have had to take resources out of the classrooms to do this work. When you work with vulnerable children and families like we do — or with children — that’s just not an option you want to exercise,” Perez said.
In recent years, a patchwork of government and nonprofit programs have stepped up, offering assistance with testing and mitigation. But the needs still far outweigh the help available, especially for high-priority places like daycares.
“It’s really going to take a whole village to tackle this problem, but the good thing is that we know how to do it,” said Elevate’s Caroline Pakenham.
About 20% of licensed child care centers in Illinois have reported to the state that they have found lead in their water, although not all of them are necessarily devices used for drinking water. Pakenham says the vendors they have worked with are even more likely to face high levels of lead.
“Depending on the type of establishment you are in, we have found that between 30 and 50 percent of suppliers find lead in their drinking water,” Pakenham said.
With funding from the EPA and support from the city, Elevate is launching a program this year to help Chicago daycare centers fight lead in drinking water. But Pakenham stresses there is still a long way to go.
“We would really like to see statewide help,” she said.
Pritzker’s 2022 budget proposal includes $565 million in loans and grants to replace lead service lines. But that’s all the money from the federal infrastructure program. Some advocates want the state to inject $300 million of its own funding, of which $60 million would go to child care.
“The health and welfare of our children is worth putting that money aside and making sure that…every child care center is free of a primary service line,” said Justin Williams of the Metropolitan Planning Council.
Williams says her group has had “positive” conversations with the governor’s office about her proposal. According to him, it is not only that children are particularly vulnerable. It is also a matter of racial equity.
“Black and Latino Illinois are twice as likely as white Illinois to live in communities that contain nearly all of the state’s major service lines. We really need to make sure we don’t leave this issue literally at the feet of people of color in Illinois,” Williams said.
Work is in progress at the General Assembly. Last year, State Rep. Lamont Robinson (D-Chicago) sponsored a successful bill requiring state water utilities to document lead service lines and come up with a plan for to replace.
“We’ve taken the lead out of the paint, but we haven’t done it in our water,” Robinson said.
But eliminating utility lines is a long-term effort — depending on the scope of the problem, utilities have between 15 and 34 years to replace lead lines by law. In the meantime, Robinson is proposing a bill this year that would provide $50 million to send free water filters to people who need them.
“We know we don’t have enough money to replace all the lead pipes. While we wait for those funds, we need to do something now,” Robinson said.
Robinson also says he favors the idea of adding more state funding to remove lead pipes. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the proposal.