High lead levels in water can have devastating health effects, especially for children – including damage to the brain and nervous system, and learning and behavioral issues.
It’s a problem acutely felt in Illinois, which has an estimated 700,000 lead service lines and a million more of unknown origin, more than any other state. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed budget sets aside nearly half a billion dollars in federal money to tackle the problem, but some advocates want more funding – in particular, targeted funding to remove lead pipes connected to child care facilities.
Back in 2017, the state of Illinois started requiring day cares to test the lead levels in their water and come up with a mitigation plan if they found any. El Hogar Del Niño, which serves families in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, discovered it had a handful of water fixtures with high lead levels.
“What we do exceptionally well here at El Hogar del Niño is early childhood,” said Executive Director Mario Perez. “What we don’t do well, or at least what we are not familiar with, are complex environmental issues.”
But they got help through the nonprofit Elevate, which installed water filters and eventually got the lead service line connected to the building replaced.
“Had we been required to change those out on our own, we would have had to remove resources from the classrooms to do that work. When you’re working with vulnerable children and families like we do – or any children – that’s just not an option that you want to exercise,” Perez said.
In recent years, a patchwork of government and nonprofit programs have ramped up, offering help with testing and mitigation. But the need still far outstrips the available assistance, especially for high-priority places like child care facilities.
“It’s really going to take a village to tackle this issue, but the good thing is we know how to do it,” said Elevate’s Caroline Pakenham.
About 20% of licensed child care facilities in Illinois have told the state they found lead in their water, though not all of those are necessarily fixtures used for drinking water. Pakenham says the providers they’ve worked with are even more likely to face high lead levels.
“Depending on what type of facility you’re in, we were finding that between 30 and 50% of providers were finding lead in their drinking water,” Pakenham said.
With funding from the EPA and support from the city, Elevate is launching a program this year to help child care facilities in Chicago address lead in the drinking water. But Pakenham stresses there’s more to be done.
“We would really love to see statewide assistance,” she said.
Pritzker’s 2022 budget proposal includes $565 million dollars in loans and grants to replace lead service lines. But that’s all money from the federal infrastructure package. Some advocates want the state to kick in $300 million dollars of its own funding, $60 million of which would be dedicated to child care facilities.
“The health and wellbeing of our children is worth it to put that money aside and make sure … every child care facility is free of a lead service line,” said Justin Williams of the Metropolitan Planning Council.
Williams says his group had “positive” conversations with the governor’s office about its proposal. As he sees it, it’s not just that children are especially vulnerable. It’s also about racial equity.
“Black and Latinx Illinoisans are twice as likely as White Illinoisans to be living in the communities that contain almost all of the state’s lead service lines. We really need to make sure we’re not leaving this problem literally at the feet of people of color in Illinois,” Williams said.
There is work underway in the General Assembly. Last year, state Rep. Lamont Robinson (D-Chicago) sponsored a successful bill requiring water utilities around the state to document lead service lines and come up with a plan to replace them.
“We removed lead out of paint, but we have not done this in our water,” Robinson said.
But eliminating service lines is a long-term effort – depending on the scope of the problem, utilities have between 15 and 34 years to replace lead pipes by law. In the meantime, Robinson’s pushing a bill this year that carves out $50 million dollars to send free water filters to people who need them.
“We know that we don’t have enough money to replace all lead pipes. While we’re waiting on those funds, we need to do something right now,” Robinson said.
Robinson also says he’s supportive of the idea to add more state funding to remove lead pipes. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on that proposal.