Flint. East Chicago. Our own city’s parks and schools. More than 2,000 years after humans first described the dangers of lead, the metal continues to do irreparable harm.

There is no safe level of lead, and even small amounts in the body can cause developmental delays and cognitive problems in children. Some researchers have linked childhood lead poisoning to spikes in violent crime; others have claimed that the widespread use of lead in ancient times contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire. And while we’re doing a much better job now to reduce lead poisoning levels, nearly 80,000 children under age six were found to have elevated blood lead levels last year in the United States. Humans are still exposed to far more lead than our pre-Industrial Revolution ancestors, says Patrick MacRoy, former head of Chicago’s lead program. “In a broad sense, even levels that seem very low are, on an evolutionary scale, fairly high exposures for humans,” he says.

The recent crises in the Midwest have highlighted the dangers of lead in water and soil—two sources that were given little attention until recently because of their minimal contribution to lead poisoning. But as we’ve successfully reduced the amount of lead in houses and in the air, the sources of lead have become more and more diffuse. We now realize that we need to look at the whole ecosystem of lead, including water.

Lead is a cumulative toxin,” MacRoy says. “You’re exposed to lead in a lot of different ways and you want to reduce all of those exposures.”

This special issue, produced by City Bureau reporters, dives into all the ways people are exposed to lead in Chicago and what we can do to help make our city safer for those most at risk of lead poisoning. You will meet some of the people whose lives have been been upended by lead and some who are on the front lines fighting for changes in how our government handles the toxin.

We will be hosting several community events in 2017 aimed at informing our neighbors about lead hazards and how to best prevent and treat lead poisoning. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates about all of our events and be sure to pick up your copy of "Living With Lead" in the South Side Weekly on stands in late-December 2016.

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Click the image below to view our photo essay on East Chicago's lead crises

(photos by Alyssa Schukar)

Click on the images below to view our maps and data on lead exposure in Chicago.

"Living With Lead:" The Oral Histories

Meet some of the people whose lives have been been upended by lead and some who are on the front lines fighting for changes in how our government handles the toxin.


  1. Protect your home: Was your house built before 1978? Keep an eye out for peeling paint: at least 83 percent of houses built before that year contain lead-based paint, and paint chips are one of the most common ways for a child to accidentally consume lead. Call the city’s lead hotline at 312-747-5323 to request an inspection or to learn how to get financial assistance for removing lead-based paint in your home.

  2. Protect your water: About 80 percent of water lines connecting homes to Chicago water mains contain lead. Filtering your water can greatly reduce your risk of exposure, but not all filters on the store shelf can prevent lead contamination, so make sure to look for the “NSF” mark that means it meets National Science Foundation standards. The product’s label should explicitly state that it will reduce lead levels in water. You can also get your home water quality tested by calling 311 or going to www.chicagowaterquality.org.

  3. Get tested: Go to your primary care doctor or pediatrician and get a blood lead level test. If you don't have one, call the lead hotline number listed above, where an operator can connect you with a doctor who will see you for free or at a sliding-scale rate based on your income.

  4. Eat well: A balanced diet can help the body resist the absorption of lead. The EPA lists calcium, iron, and vitamin C as essential nutrients that will help anyone, especially children, fight potential lead poisoning. They even put together a guide with lead-fighting recipes like grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches and French toast.

  5. Stay informed: Check to see how prevalent lead may be in your area by texting LEAD to 312-697-1791


"Living With Lead" was produced in a special issue of South Side Weekly by City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab. Editing by Bettina Chang, Darryl Holliday, and Nissa Rhee.

Special thanks to the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Eric Potash of the University of Chicago for their support.