Chicago lead pipes: City working to replace over 400K service lines; how you can test your water

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone and Maggie Green WLS logo
Friday, July 21, 2023
Chicago working to replace hundreds of thousands of lead pipes
Chicago has been working to replace the 400,000-plus lead service pipes that bring water into residents' homes, but you should still test your water.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- No amount of lead is safe for a person to ingest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are more lead water pipes in Chicago than anywhere else in the country, which is why the city of Chicago has been working to replace the more than 400,000 lead service pipes that bring water into residents' homes. The total cost of the project is estimated to be about $8 billion, which has left the Chicago Water Department with challenges for replacing the pipes quickly and equitably.

The I-Team sat down with Chicago's new water commissioner responsible for this task and a resident struggling to make her home safer.

"There's no acceptable amount of lead that should be in the water," said homeowner Marcelina Pedraza.

Like most people, she doesn't want lead in her water but as board president of a local environmental task force, she knows even more about the issue. She was alarmed when her family's water at her East Side neighborhood home tested positive for lead.

The test results that she got back from the city showed her water had 21 micrograms of lead per liter; the limit by the EPA is 15. So every day Pedraza runs her tap for the recommended five minutes to flush her line, and uses a special filtered pitcher.

"This one is supposed to filter the lead, or most of it," she explained.

How to have your home checked for lead by the city of Chicago, either with a home test kit or an in-person visit.

Pedraza filters her tap water because, according to her home testing and the city's tests, it's consistently over that government lead limit.

The ABC7 data team found that between 2016 and 2022, Chicago tested water from more than 30,000 home service lines. Six percent reported lead levels at or above the EPA's limit.

Chicago's Water Department has a program to replace lead lines with copper pipes for free, but Pedraza doesn't qualify because her family income is above the threshold of $84,000 a year.

"We should have safe drinking water. We shouldn't have to pay for it," she said.

City data does show that 200 Chicago residents paid for the replacement themselves, but that $16,000 to $30,000 price tag is too high for Pedraza and most of her neighbors who are waiting for more assistance programs.

The high cost, plus the high volume of lead pipes, has been challenging said Chicago Water Commissioner Andrea Chang. Chang estimates it could take nearly 50 years for the pipe replacement project to be complete.

This is what happens if lead is found in your home's water or pipe system.

"In Chicago, we have about 400,000 estimated lead service lines. Unfortunately, it is the city with the most it was, you know, a terrible moniker to have. But you know, we are trying to address it head on," she said.

The Chicago Water Department said that of the homeowners who have applied to the free Equity Lead Service Line Replacement, 1,100 meet the requirements. As of late June, 667 of those applications were completed with another 441 in progress.

"Even when it's a free program, our experience is that understandably, some folks don't trust the government, right? So it does take a little bit of time to do the outreach," said Chang.

The city does replace lead lines in private homes for free when there is a problem, such as a broken or burst pipe. The city also does cover the cost replace public lines. And there has been some progress; in all, 1,900 lines have been replaced with another 1,100 in the works.

The city is also working on other ways to help lower the cost for those who don't qualify for the free replacement program.

How you can get lead service lines replaced for free or have some of the costs subsidized.

"While we figure out what options exist for that person, every day that water needs to be protected," Change said. "There's a phosphate that we add to drinking water that coats the inside of lead pipes and minimizes any leaching of that lead into the water."

Pedraza said she hopes one day down the line there will be another free program she qualifies for.

"It should be accessible and safe for everyone," she said.

President Joe Biden allocated federal money to replace public lead pipes nationwide. The city hopes the next round of federal funding can be used for residential pipes.

You can get free lead testing kits sent to you upon request and apply for the replacement program if the tests find lead in their water.

-To request a Chicago Water Lead Test Kit, click here

-To request a Chicago Water Lead Test visit by a technician, click here

-Chicago Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program Application

-To report a Water Quality Concern, click here