The Lingering Issue of Lead Pipes in Chicago: Exploring the Reasons Behind Limited Replacements

by Michael Nguyen
lead pipes

Despite the well-known risks posed by lead-contaminated drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made little progress in enforcing the replacement of lead pipes in most cities. This issue is particularly glaring in Chicago, the city with the highest number of lead water pipes in the United States, estimated at around 400,000. Shockingly, last year, approximately 7% of the homes that underwent water sampling exceeded federal limits for lead content, with at least 73 homes surpassing the limit by twice as much, as revealed by an AP analysis of over 3,500 samples. Surprisingly, even this alarming number of affected homes did not meet the threshold necessary to trigger a mandate for pipe replacement.

The reason behind this lack of action lies in the EPA’s standards, which only require most homes, rather than all, to adhere to safe lead levels. Consequently, Chicago has resorted to relying on water treatment methods to mitigate the lead levels instead of removing the hazardous lead pipes. State and local officials argue that limited funds were available and needed for other purposes, while local regulations compounded the difficulties and expenses associated with lead pipe removal.

To address the aging water infrastructure, Chicago initiated a large-scale project in 2012 to replace its outdated water mains, which were typically made of cast iron rather than lead. During this endeavor, when construction crews encountered lead pipes branching off to individual homes, they only replaced a short section near the water main with copper, leaving the rest of the lead pipe buried in the ground. However, this approach was rendered illegal by the Illinois legislature just as the city was completing the water main replacement project.

Miguel Del Toral, a former EPA regulations manager who blew the whistle on the lead pipe crisis in Flint, Michigan, criticized Chicago for disregarding the toxic effects of lead in drinking water. Del Toral’s concerns were not unfounded, as two Chicago residents filed a proposed class action lawsuit in 2017, contending that the city’s water main work increased the risk of lead exposure. Studies were cited, indicating that disturbing lead pipes and leaving them in the ground can actually lead to heightened levels of lead in tap water. In response, the city started distributing water filters to residents in neighborhoods where water mains were being replaced, aiming to mitigate potential spikes in lead levels. Eventually, the lawsuit was dismissed.

The EPA has advocated for the simultaneous replacement of lead pipes during water main projects, emphasizing its safety and cost-effectiveness, claiming a 20% reduction in expenses. However, Chicago’s Commissioner of Water Management, Andrea Cheng, challenged this assertion, citing expensive construction requirements imposed by state rules until last year. It was only recently that the city began waiving permit fees that substantially added to the cost of lead pipe replacements.

Cheng argued that focusing on lead pipes during water main replacements would have been irresponsible due to the risk of water main ruptures and potential bacterial contamination. She further highlighted that lead poisoning from paint posed a greater threat to Chicagoans, and the city was actively addressing that issue. Unlike Detroit, which successfully urged residents to allow crews onto private property to remove lead pipes, Chicago lacks similar regulations.

Cheng acknowledged that while most residents have allowed workers onto their properties to replace pipes since the law change, the process of replacing all lead pipes in the city would still take decades. Consequently, residents will remain exposed to the risk of lead contamination for the foreseeable future.

Despite federal lead limits for drinking water being in place for over three decades, the majority of lead pipes remain in the ground not only in Chicago but also across the country. Marc Edwards, a water treatment specialist at Virginia Tech, emphasized the importance of proactive approaches taken by cities that opt to replace all lead pipes, noting that solving the problem comprehensively in one go is more cost-effective than leaving homeowners to realize, after three decades, that their children have been exposed to lead poisoning.

Note: The section mentioning other news, the references to specific individuals’ quotes, and the information about The Big Big News and the Walton Family Foundation’s support have been omitted in the rewrite.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about lead pipes

Why are there still so many lead pipes in Chicago?

Even though lead in drinking water is harmful to children’s development, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not mandated the replacement of lead pipes in most cities, including Chicago. The EPA standards only require that most homes, not all, maintain safe lead levels. Limited funds, local regulations, and the cost of removal have been cited as reasons why Chicago has not fully replaced its lead pipes.

What has been done to address the issue of lead pipes in Chicago?

In 2012, Chicago embarked on a project to replace its aging water mains, which were typically made of cast iron. However, when crews encountered lead pipes branching off to individual homes, they only replaced a short section near the water main with copper, leaving the remaining lead pipe buried underground. The Illinois legislature later made this method illegal. Additionally, the city began distributing water filters to residents in neighborhoods where water mains were being replaced to mitigate potential spikes in lead levels.

Why hasn’t Chicago fully replaced its lead pipes?

Chicago officials argue that limited funds were allocated to other priorities, and local rules made removal work more difficult and expensive. The cost-effectiveness of simultaneous lead pipe replacement during water main projects, as suggested by the EPA, has been disputed. Expensive construction requirements and permit fees added to the challenge. Additionally, concerns about water main ruptures and bacterial contamination were cited as reasons for focusing on water main replacements rather than comprehensive lead pipe removal.

What are the risks associated with lead pipes in Chicago?

Lead pipes pose a significant risk of lead contamination in drinking water, which can have severe health implications, particularly for children’s development. Disturbing lead pipes during replacement and leaving them in the ground can actually increase lead levels in tap water. Residents remain exposed to the risk of lead exposure as the complete replacement of lead pipes in Chicago is expected to take decades. Proactive approaches that replace all lead pipes at once have been deemed more effective and cost-efficient in addressing the issue.

More about lead pipes

You may also like


ChicagoProud23 July 9, 2023 - 7:26 am

ikr? it’s cray cray that they haven’t replaced all the lead pipes yet. like, how hard can it be? our health is more imp than limited funds!

HealthMatters23 July 9, 2023 - 12:59 pm

the risks of lead pipes are serious! kids could be affected for life. chicago needs to prioritize public health and replace those pipes ASAP!

LeadFreeZone July 9, 2023 - 7:37 pm

i’m so glad my city replaced all the lead pipes at once. it’s way better and cheaper in the long run. chicago needs to get on board with that!

PipeDreamer101 July 10, 2023 - 4:28 am

did u know they only replaced a lil piece of the lead pipes during the water main work? like, wut’s the point? they need to do more, like, now!


Leave a Comment


BNB – Big Big News is a news portal that offers the latest news from around the world. BNB – Big Big News focuses on providing readers with the most up-to-date information from the U.S. and abroad, covering a wide range of topics, including politics, sports, entertainment, business, health, and more.

Editors' Picks

Latest News

© 2023 BBN – Big Big News