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A study finds that 129,000 children under the age of 6 in Chicago were exposed to lead-contaminated water.


CHICAGO (CBS) — A worrying study reveals that two-thirds of children under the age of 6 have been exposed to lead through their drinking water.

The study also found that predominantly Black and Latino populations were disproportionately less likely to be tested for lead, but also disproportionately exposed to contaminated drinking water.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, found that 68 percent of children ages 6 and younger in Chicago — a total of 129,000 — were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water. The study also found that 19% of these children use unfiltered tap water as their primary source of drinking water.

Investigators used a retrospective assessment of lead exposure based on 38,385 household lead tests collected between January 2016 and September 2023. The information was publicly available in Department of Water Management records.

The study says machine learning and microsimulation were used to estimate lead exposure in children across the city.

The study defined water as contaminated if most tests in a census block had a lead concentration of 1 part per billion or more on the second draw. This value was chosen because no amount of lead in drinking water is considered safe and because one ppb is the limit of detection in lead water testing.

The study warns that increased blood lead levels in children can lead to deficits in cognitive development and other health risks.

“The impact of low-level, long-term exposure to lead-contaminated drinking water may not be easily identifiable at the individual level,” the study says. “Instead, it could lead to an increase in population-level health problems, such as a decline in average population IQ or an increase in premature births, highlighting the need to reduce exposure to drinking water contaminated with lead.”

The study also concluded that Black and Latino households disproportionately drink bottled water, while white households disproportionately drink tap water. However, the study highlights that bottled water is not necessarily less contaminated with lead than tap water – with the US Food and Drug Administration setting the lower limit for lead in bottled water at five ppb. The study also found that using filtered tap water does not necessarily prevent lead exposure.

“The racial and ethnic disparities present are indicative of the myriad ways environmental racism can manifest. Lower testing rates, less tap water consumption, and higher levels of lead exposure among the blocks “Neighborhoods with high-risk estimates as well as low rates of screening were largely clustered in the city’s South and West sides, consistent with the city’s geographic history of segregation and disinvestment.”

Benjamin Huynh, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is the lead author of the study. He reiterated that no amount of lead in water is safe.

“The goal is to have zero lead in the water,” Huynh said, “and we know from science that even small amounts of lead in the water can impact your child.”

However, Huynh also noted that the study’s results should not be compared to the high-profile water crises of relatively recent years.

“I don’t think we need to be alarmist,” Huynh said. “It’s not as bad as Flint crisis. Your child will not be hospitalized because of the lead levels we are seeing. But yes, I think there is some concern – because even these low levels of lead, these are things that can affect your child without you realizing it. »

Additionally, exposure to lead-based paint dust remains the primary source of increased blood levels among Chicago children. That’s why the Chicago Department of Public Health has invested in rigorous inspection and mitigation of lead-based paint and dust, especially in the hardest-hit communities.

In a statement, the Chicago Department of Water Management said it disputed the study’s sampling — saying it only indicated whether or not there was a lead service line, not a routine exposure.

The city also said lead tests show the water meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Chicago has 380,000 lead service pipes. City officials estimate that replacing them will cost up to $9 billion.

On Tuesday, the Department of Water Management reiterated that it has implemented five programs to remove the city’s lead water pipes and is offering free water testing to its residents.

Last November, the Biden administration announced a low-interest loan of $336 million for Chicago through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to replace up to 30,000 lead pipes.

Elizabeth Chin of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Mathew Kiang of the Stanford University School of Medicine are also authors of the study.


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