Chicago’s Lead Contamination Crisis

William Baker

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022


Illinoisans have good reason to be concerned about where their water comes from, as a report published by Chicago Tribune recently revealed that Illinois has more lead pipe infrastructure than any other state. The six-year study determined that eight of out ten Illinois residents live in an area supplied by lead-contaminated water. In addition, Chicago has more lead-based pipes than any other locality in Illinois. These facts are both startling and unsettling, especially in the wake of the protracted water crisis in Flint, Michigan. More specifically, lead is a highly toxic substance that can lead to organ failure and irreversible brain damage. While the need to replace lead-based pipes with safe alternatives is urgent, the current pace of pipe replacement is so sluggish that estimates say it would take 500 years to render Chicago’s water infrastructure as completely lead free. Such estimates are unacceptably long, which is why state lawmakers are in the throes of composing a drinking water infrastructure bill.

A brief overview of Chicago’s water infrastructure

The City of Chicago required lead-based pipe infrastructure up until 1986, at which point Congress banned the use of lead in service lines and street mains. The forced utilization of lead infrastructure can be largely attributed to plumber-friendly building codes and shady political deals that were untouchable until the federal ban was implemented. However, it was not until 2010 that the City allocated funds toward a water infrastructure modernization program. This program did little to affect change in Chicago’s water infrastructure, as city officials deemed a complete overhaul as far too costly.

Unfortunately, the move toward lead-free pipes has not been without scandal. The Chicago Tribune revealed in 2016 that the properties utilized for lead contamination regulatory tests were in fact owned by the city’s water department. The Tribune conducted another investigation spanning from 2016 to 2018, in which they discovered that approximately 70% of Chicago homes have unacceptably high levels of lead.

A lead-free future

Lead is a highly toxic element that is dangerous in quantities both small and large. Lead can damage the nervous system, lower cognitive function, stunt growth, and foster speech and development problems. Lead may also cause fatalities if sufficiently high levels are ingested. While the dangers of lead are obvious and well known, the biggest obstacle stems from financing. City-wide replacement of lead pipe infrastructure will be extremely expensive, as streets and sidewalks alike will be torn apart and later repaved in order to access the existing pipe infrastructure. Another obstacle pertains to disturbing the sediment formations around the pipes, which likely contain dangerous amounts of lead accumulated over the years.

The role of public policy

More pressure must be imposed on City Council in order to effectuate the replacement of lead-based pipes with safe infrastructure. In addition, some residents admit that the responsibility should be split between property owners and the city, with exceptions permitted for low-income households. However, it has yet to be determined whether this course of action will ultimately be pursued. Regardless, city policies cannot continue to exert influence at the expense of residents’ health. Greater action is also needed on a federal level, as there is no federal standard that limits how much lead is allowable in tap water.

Not all hope is lost, however, seeing as Mayor Lightfoot announced last year that the City of Chicago would accrue $8.5 billion in state and federal grants and loans to devote toward lead pipe replacement. The project will allow low-income residents to request replacement at no cost, although the project will take decades to complete. Meanwhile, residents in higher income brackets may either request the replacement at a discount or obtain a fee waiver for up to $3100 dollars. Furthermore, the Environmental Defense Fund is actively lobbying on Capitol Hill to encourage the incorporation of lead pipe replacement into the infrastructure bill currently being drafted under the Biden Administration. Numerous polls have shown that there is substantial bipartisan support for such an overhaul, as lead water pipe replacement enhances safety while simultaneously generating jobs and reducing health inequities. In short, while these plans are a step in the right direction, federal action will be crucial in order to accelerate the proposed timeline. Chicago cannot wait half a millennium for total lead pipe eradication. The time is now, and federal action combined with the City’s efforts is the most promising method of achieving that goal.