Chicago has to run water fountains 24/7 to keep lead levels down

July 28, 2017, 9:32am

Some drinking fountains in Chicago are so contaminated with lead that the city isn’t turning them off.

Water running through the fountains and the pipes that lead to them, the city says, reduces the amount of lead in the water to “safe” levels. The contamination is likely coming from lead service pipes, brass fittings, and solder — the longer the water sits in the pipes, the more lead seeps into it.

When the fountains’ on-off buttons work and they’re not running nonstop, the levels of lead have clocked in at 80 times the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency at some of the fountains, according to a report from the Chicago Park District. One fountain had 120 times the EPA limit.

For the last several months, more than 100 of Chicago’s public fountains have been running constantly — and between April and June, all of the park district’s nearly 1,900 fountains had been running nonstop during what the city said was a one-month-long flushing process aimed at lowering levels of lead.

Last year, when the city tested its fountains, the Chicago Park District found that water from about 450 of them had high levels of lead. Upon retesting the fountains this spring after flushing them out, they found that most of those fountains had reduced levels of lead. But 30 percent of them still didn’t, a parks district spokesperson told local public radio station WBEZ. So the solution is to let them run, which the city says keeps the water safe to drink.

But even running constantly, seven fountains were still found to have unsafe levels of lead and have been shut off entirely.

The city is now testing indoor fountains. In the meantime, the outdoor running ones are using a lot of water.

WBEZ estimates that one of those ever-running fountains wastes about 575 gallons of drinking water per day. Nevertheless they are set to run constantly through the fall. In 2003, the city, concerned with curbing the amount of water wasted at drinking fountains, retrofitted them with on-off buttons.

While the EPA has a limit for lead in water — if lead levels are higher than the limit, the agency must intervene — both the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control acknowledge that no amount of lead is safe in drinking water.

Children who are exposed to lead are prone to learning disabilities. Lead poisoning can cause delayed puberty, and it can mess up kids’ hearing. It can cause early birth if pregnant women are poisoned by it. And in adults, lead can harm the nervous system and the heart, and it can lower sperm count.

Lead contamination in water is a national crisis, and has been for years. But the issue gained attention in 2014 when the local government of Flint, Michigan, switched water sources, contaminating the city’s drinking water. Nearly three years later, they still don’t have clean water.

In New Orleans, the city inspector general found that new construction projects could be exposing residents to lead. In East Chicago, Indiana, continuous lead poisoning has forced people to move. And in December 2016, a sweeping Reuters report found that there are 3,000 locales across the country with lead contamination levels double those in Flint, including places in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Texas — some of which have lived with lead contamination for decades.