CHICAGO — President Joe Biden’s administration is moving to require utilities to replace every toxic lead pipe connecting homes to water mains during the next decade, though Chicago and several other cities likely will get more time to finish the job.
Ingesting tiny concentrations of lead can permanently damage the developing brains of children and contribute to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems later in life. One study estimated more than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to lead exposure.
For decades dust from lead-based paint has been considered the chief source of exposure to the toxic metal. But in recent years the largely hidden threat of lead water pipes has become more widely understood, driven in part by federal research in Chicago and a crisis in Flint, Michigan, that showed how the simple act of drinking a glass of unfiltered tap water can pose significant health risks.
Biden promised during his 2020 campaign to speed up the replacement of lead pipes known as service lines. One of the big infrastructure bills his administration brokered with Congress earmarked $15 billion toward that effort. New regulatory changes announced Wednesday would help determine how and where the money is spent.
“Everyone in this country should be able to turn on their tap for a glass of water and know that it’s safe to drink,” Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Wednesday during a call with journalists.
More than 9 million homes nationwide get their drinking water from a service line made of lead. Chicago has 400,000 of the toxic pipes, more than any other city. Illinois has more than any other state.
Clout-heavy unions ensured Chicago’s plumbing code required use of the toxic metal until Congress banned the practice in 1986.
As recently as 2018, city officials denied the nation’s third largest city has a widespread problem with brain-damaging lead in drinking water, even though testing kits distributed by the city revealed high levels of the toxic metal in every neighborhood.
Action by state lawmakers and the promise of federal assistance helped change attitudes at City Hall. In early November, Mayor Brandon Johnson and other elected officials announced Chicago had secured a $336 million federal loan to replace 30,000 lead service lines during the next three years.
Physicians and scientists say that unless water drawn from household faucets is properly filtered, the only way to keep the lead out in older cities such as Chicago is by replacing service lines connecting homes and small apartment buildings to local water supplies.
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