Chicago schools regularly test for lead and flush water systems, aiming to protect students' health

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Wednesday, November 15, 2023
How does testing water for lead work at Chicago schools?
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Lead in water at school can cause children to have lower IQs, lower academic performance and other health problems. This is how CPS prevents it.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago Public Schools said water at their schools is safe and meets all state and federal requirements, but they voluntarily test water regularly because lead in pipes can leach into the water as it sits stagnant.

At 6 a.m., before school starts, the ABC7 I-Team got an exclusive look at lead water testing at Sauganash Elementary School on the city's Northwest Side.

"We're gonna take five consecutive 250 milliliter samples," said Douglas McCormick of Carnow Conibear & Assoc., Ltd. "We do this every morning, we sample approximately 25% of the schools annually."

CPS runs tests like this on drinking water in all of its 634 schools. Testing has to be done before water starts flowing.

CPS told the I-Team that, according to data gathered since 2019, the average number of samples exceeding the IDPH lead level limit is 9.6%

"We also want to make sure, ensure that the water is safe to drink, because there is no safe level of lead in water," said Rob Christlieb, executive director facility operations for CPS.

According to the CDC, even low levels of lead found children have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. If lead is found, the school district takes action.

"Immediately that fixture is removed from service. The building engineer is notified, take that fixture out of service, they flush that fixture for seven consecutive days, eight hours a day, so total of 56 hours," said Richard Schleyer, director of environmental health and safety for CPS. "We let that fixture rest for eight to 18 hours, and then we retest that."

While none of the service lines in the school are made of lead, small amounts of lead can still leak from other metal materials which are used for school pipes.

"As the water sits in the pipe, it has the opportunity to leach the metals from the pipe itself," McCormick said.

The state does not require this ongoing testing, but CPS does it anyway. There are also no federal laws requiring testing in schools.

The I-Team worked with ABC News and seven other stations across the nation to request information from schools, reaching out to over 130 school districts across 11 states.

Forty-one agreed to answer questions via email and over the phone, and the responses on what they were doing to track lead in their water varied. Some said they were part of a voluntary testing program. Others said they were about to start testing, or that they were waiting for testing kits. Fifteen school districts or companies that tested on their behalf did agree to speak with our team. But seven districts declined our request and the majority of schools we reached out to, 75 districts, did not respond at all.

The I-Team reached out to the Elgin and Naperville schools districts as well. Elgin said it regularly tests but didn't show us the process, and Naperville didn't respond.

Back at CPS, they're taking a proactive approach by flushing lines every week.

So what about the samples we watched being taken? CPS test results at Sauganash show that all of the samples passed. CPS's program has cost the school district $3.14 million over the last seven years, but without it the cost would be higher: a risk to students' health.