Long before the first winter frost, hundreds of drinking fountains in Chicago parks have been shut off after testing revealed high levels of brain-damaging lead in the water.
Chicago Park District officials said Tuesday they decided to take 459, or about 18 percent, of their 2,435 water fixtures out of service based on samples collected during the summer. The action is another response to an ongoing crisis in Flint, Mich., that has drawn nationwide attention to lingering hazards in cities where lead pipes and plumbing were used for more than a century.
Though the dangers of lead have been well known for decades, until recently there has been little testing for the toxic metal in drinking water beyond samples the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires municipal water systems to periodically collect from homes.
Consultants found a wide range of lead levels in Chicago parks and Park District facilities, similar to earlier reports from Chicago Public Schools, suburban school districts and parochial schools operated by the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Park District officials took action when the amount of lead flowing from a particular fountain or sink exceeded 15 parts per billion, a level described in an online summary as the EPA’s standard for drinking water. But the agency’s regulations apply to testing carried out across municipal water systems, not test results at any one time from one fixture.
A government edict that reflects how people typically use drinking fountains is the Food and Drug Administration’s limit on lead in bottled water — 5 parts per billion. If Park District officials had followed the FDA standard, another 250 fixtures would have been shut down, according to a Tribune review of the test results.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to assess safety based on a snapshot of test results, said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech researcher who served on an EPA advisory committee that last year called for more aggressive efforts to eliminate lead hazards in public water supplies.
Lead can appear sporadically as particles break off or leach into water — an unpredictable phenomenon researchers describe as a version of Russian roulette.
“Sadly, what people should make of these reports is that tap water at Chicago parks is not lead-free and they are on their own to protect their children from exposures,” Lambrinidou said. “Demanding that public officials abandon the misleading crutch of the 15 (parts per billion) ‘action level’ and develop solutions that reflect current scientific understanding about lead in water would be a good first step.”
Even at low levels, lead can permanently damage the developing brains and nervous systems of young children. Studies have linked childhood exposure to learning disabilities and violent behavior later in life.
The Park District is still investigating where the lead in the fountain water is coming from. Potential sources include lead pipes and solder or lead in the fixtures themselves.
About 40,000 children attended summer day camps at city parks. Thousands attend other programs during the school year.
The Park District shut off nearly a quarter of its outdoor fountains based on the testing. Three percent of the district’s indoor fountains and sinks were taken out of service.
The highest lead levels were in a two-level fountain in Avalon Park off 83rd Street near Stony Island Avenue. The taller fountain registered 1,800 parts per billion, while the shorter one recorded 1,200. Another two-level fountain in the park had 400 and 270 parts per billion.
Grant Park, often described as the city’s front yard, highlights the dramatic differences between individual water fountains. The majority of fountains tested in the park – 48 – registered lead levels at or below 5.4 parts per billion. But one had 1,200, another 560 and 15 were between 81 and 5.8, according to the Park District summary.
It is unclear how much it will cost to repair or replace the fountains with elevated lead levels, said Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a Park District spokeswoman. “Ensuring the health and safety of all park patrons and staff is a top priority of the Park District,” she said in a statement.