preventing lead in drinking water
Photo courtesy Jeff Turner via Flickr CC
In the wake of the Flint lead crisis, many states, local communities and parents came to a disturbing realization: federal law does not require schools to test for and address neurotoxic lead in their drinking water. Illinois ranks higher than the national average for childhood lead exposure, which can lead to lifelong intellectual, emotional and behavioral consequences, lower IQ, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.

Though the situation in Flint was particularly harrowing, it was not the only city that was found to have alarming amounts of lead in the water. Here in Illinois, the citizens of Galesburg continue to deal with the fact that their water exceeded the federal action level of 15 parts per billion 22 times in the last 25 years. Knox County, which is home to Galesburg, also has some of the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning in Illinois.

At one point, the situation was bad enough that the EPA regional water division director urged the state to get a commitment from Galesburg, a city of 30,000, to provide bottled water or filters to residents whose homes exceed the federal action level for lead.

But issues of lead in drinking water were not confined to Galesburg. In the spring of 2016 Chicago Public Schools began voluntarily testing school drinking water for lead and many of the results were alarming: of 526 schools have been tested, 192 schools have found at least one fixture above the federal action level, 334 additional schools have found lower levels of lead.

In response to these crises, the Illinois General Assembly approved SB550, or the Preventing Lead in Drinking Water Act. Because there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office and a coalition of environmental groups, including the umbrella Illinois Environmental Council, NRDC, the Prairie Rivers Network, and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, worked to pass legislation that requires basic steps to protect children from lead poisoning.

Current Laws
Lead in Drinking Water Act:
The Act requires school buildings built before January 1, 1987 – both public and private – to complete water testing by the end of 2017. Schools built between January 2, 1987 and January 1, 2000 must complete testing by the end of 2018. The Act requires parents and guardians of students be notified of lead results greater than or equal to five parts per billion (ppb).

Daycares built on or before January 1, 2000 that serve children younger than 6 years old will also be required to conduct testing once rules are developed by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and Illinois Department of Public Health.

  • Sampling: The testing must consist of two samples, the first conducted with no flushing of the system within at least 8 hours, and the second timed to capture problems with different portions of the water system serving the school. This protocol is based in part on the Chicago Public Schools approach, where 5 samples were collected at each outlet, due to finding some higher levels in later samples; but the state approach was modified to reduce the costs on schools while capturing a significant portion of the system.
  • Testing schedule: Older schools built prior to 1987 (when new federal standards for lead in plumbing came into effect) must go first, with testing due by the end of 2017. Newer schools built between 1987 and 2000 are included as well, again based on experience in Chicago showing problems at newer schools, and must complete testing by the end of 2018 (the Department of Public Health is also required to determine by 2019 whether schools built after 2000 must test).
  • Availability/notification of results: Schools must submit all test results to the Department of Public Health. If any sample at a school tests above 5 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, the school must provide individual notification of the results to all parents of children at the school; results at or below 5 ppb may be posted on the school’s website.
  • Exception: There is an exception for schools that have already conducted lead testing voluntarily, which may apply for a waiver.

Guidance on mitigation of lead in school drinking water

Lead service line inventory and notification of work on mains or meters
In addition, owners and operators must take additional steps beyond those required by federal regulations to compile an (annually updated) inventory of lead service lines within or connected to their distribution systems, including privately owned lead service lines. Owners and operators must also provide at least 14-days prior notice to residents of planned work on water mains or lead service lines that may impact the levels of lead in their drinking water, as well as notification of repair or replacement of water meters when such work is initiated. The notifications must include warnings about the potential impact of the work, information about best practices for preventing consumption of any lead in drinking water, and information regarding the dangers of lead in young children.

Funding sources for compliance with school testing and other requirements
The new law amends a number of existing state laws to enable schools, water suppliers and municipalities to access various funds or impose fees for purposes of complying with the new testing requirements and other aspects of the new law, or to get recovery for compliance-related costs in their rates.

Our Vision for Getting the Lead Out of Drinking Water
Continuous monitoring of schools for lead.
While the Lead in Drinking Water is a marked improvement on the status quo, it is important to note that the new Illinois law does not set any thresholds above which schools must mitigate lead found in their drinking water. The Act also does not require schools or anyone else to take any steps to address identified lead problems, or to conduct any follow-up testing to determine the effectiveness of responses. The law mandates that the Illinois Department of Public Health provides guidance on what to do when lead is detected, but it relies on schools, parents, other local officials, and/or anyone else interested in the problem to step up voluntarily to figure out how to mitigate the problem.

Future actions will be needed at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that all schools in Illinois and across the country have the information and resources they need to abate this threat to kids’ health.

Testing of all locations - not just schools - where children are regularly present.
The Chicago Park District tested and found high levels of lead at park district water fountains throughout the city. Based on this and other examples, we support expanding testing of lead in drinking water to park districts across the state, as well as other locations that serve children.
Replacement of lead service lines, plumbing, and fixtures.
Ultimately, all lead needs to be removed from the plumbing system. Corrosion of lead in plumbing is counteracted by the addition of orthophosphate to drinking water, which while safe, adds to the nutrient pollution issue that plagues Illinois waterways and the Gulf of Mexico.
Learn More and Take Action

CDC: Lead Prevention Tips – Water FAQ

Chicago Public Schools: Lead Testing

IEPA Accredited Labs

IEPA: Resources on Lead

New York State DOH: Sampling for Lead in Drinking Water in NYS Schools (Video)

USEPA: Basic Information about Lead in Drinking Water

USEPA: Drinking Water in Schools and Childcare Facilities

3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Child Care Facilities

Partners for Parks and Wildlife

Partners for Parks and Wildlife (PPW) is a grassroots coalition that is dedicated to secure and increase funding for open space and park acquisition, natural area preservation, wildlife habitat protection and recreational opportunities in Illinois.

Learn More About Climate Change

The U.S. EPA’s website on climate change was once a great resource for basic scientific information on the topic and we look forward to the day that it is again. Until then, the City of Chicago is making sure its citizens have access to research and information.


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