By Mindy Dillon, City Bureau Documenter

On Monday, March 13, Nissa Rhee of City Bureau hosted the first in a series of events designed to engage and educate Chicago residents about the dangers of lead in their communities. These events follow the publication of “Living with Lead,” a special edition of the South Side Weekly produced by City Bureau and published on December 14, 2016.

Eric Potash, University of Chicago researcher, and Dr. Howard Ehrman, former primary care and assistant commissioner in the Chicago Department of Public Health, joined Rhee, head of the team of journalists that produced this special edition, at Legler Library, 115 S. Pulaski Rd.

The lead experts explained how the current model for addressing lead exposure and lead poisoning in Chicago is reactive as opposed to preventative, and palliative instead of curative.

Potash explained that, currently, once a child tests positive for elevated blood levels, the city is notified and a Lead Investigating Unit attempts to make contact with the family. In this model, the city reacts to an exposure that has taken place and attempts to rectify a situation that has already caused damage. This effort is often hampered by insufficient funds and staff and an inability to establish contact with the families due to unreliable addresses or lack of response to phone calls. In his research, Potash is developing a model that would allow the city to use funds in a more efficient and targeted way to predict where children are most at risk and prevent the exposure in the first place.

Exposure prevention, according to Ehrman, has to be the goal, since no amount of lead is safe in the human body. Ehrman explained that while officials took the right steps by decreasing so-called “normal” rates from 60 to 5 micrograms per deciliter, lead is a neurotoxin that destroys brain cells and anything above zero is not normal. To put the danger in perspective for children on the West and South sides of Chicago, Ehrman explained that children in these communities have two times the risk of children in Flint, Michigan, which has made national news for the severity of health issues caused by high lead levels in its water supply.

Ehrman offered suggestions for individual and immediate action as well as communal and political action. As individuals, immediate steps can be taken:

  1. Use cold water only.
  2. Place filters on every drinking faucet.
  3. Call 311 to request a free water test by Chicago’s Department of Water Management or, as Rhee explained, go to and request one online.
  4. Have soil tested.
  5. Children should always be tested via venipuncture and not by finger prick, which can give false positive and false negatives. Rhee elaborated that every child should be tested at one year of age and again at two.
  6. Be aware that plumbers often still use lead solder on copper pipes as it is easier to work with and they still have a large supply of it. This too can be a source of lead exposure.
  7. Rhee added that residents should text the word LEAD to 312–697–1791 to get data from lead tests in their neighborhood.

Politically, Ehrman suggested that concerned citizens should organize, advocate for stricter laws on landlords, and demand that city officials look to the example set by Massachusetts and Wisconsin and others that are providing grants to property owners to fix, rather than simply mitigate, the problem by replacing service lines.

To be effective, communities should organize by block particularly around areas where water mains are being replaced, Ehrman said. He warned that the sudden rush to replace water mainlines could set the stage for the privatization of Chicago’s water supply—a step that some believe played a role in Flint’s health disaster.

In addition, Chicago needs tougher laws regulating landlords and a grant system to help citizens replace service lines which connect properties to the main water lines, Ehrman said. He suggested that citizens need to advocate for laws, like those in New York City that require landlords of any three-flat or larger building to test for lead every year. Chicago should also follow the lead of Boston and Madison, Wisconsin, that provide grants to property owners to help replace service lines.

Rhee opened the panel to audience questions. Sheila Sutton of the Metropolitan Tenant Organization (MTO) said she has issues with housing vouchers, which in some cases have resulted in worse living conditions, including increased exposure to lead, due to the lack of affordable housing in Chicago and lack of landlord oversight. MTO is contracted by the city to help test homes for lead. Sutton explained that the city has limited resources and will usually only respond to households with elevated lead tests if they have children under two or pregnant women living there.

Troy Hernandez, a Pilsen resident, said he is worried that testing does not actually solve the problem. He added that flushing the water for five minutes anytime the water has been standing in the service lines for an extended period is an effective preventative measure. This means flushing upon waking or returning home at night.

The panel adjourned with the consensus that while paint and dilapidated buildings are still the primary source of lead exposure, the whole lead ecosystem should be looked at and addressed.

The final “Living with Lead” workshop will be Saturday March 25 at 10:30am
at the Thurgood Marshall library, 7506 S. Racine Ave.