Alarmed by chronic problems with lead-contaminated water in downstate Galesburg, federal officials are urging local officials to provide bottled water or filters to residents where testing at household taps found high levels of the toxic metal.
Though the small Knox County city stands out for repeatedly exceeding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lead standards, a Tribune analysis of state data has identified about 170 other public water systems in Illinois — serving about 700,000 people in all — that had test results that exceeded federal standards during at least one year since 2004.
Drinking water typically is lead-free when it leaves a treatment plant but can be contaminated as it passes through or stagnates in lead service lines that connect homes to water mains, as well as lead plumbing inside homes. The hazards are widespread in Illinois, which has a large number of older homes and more lead service lines than any other state.
Officials at water systems that have exceeded the EPA standard said they informed residents of lead risks and adjusted corrosion-fighting treatments intended to prevent lead from leaching out of pipes. But local officials typically are not required to immediately notify homeowners or take other action unless their water system exceeds the standard during a full testing cycle, and some are allowed to test over a three-year period.
As a result, many water systems can tell consumers in annual notices that their water is safe, even if the results for that year exceed the federal standard or high levels are found in individual homes.
Criticized for responding too slowly in Flint, Mich., the EPA is now pressuring states to test more frequently and widely for lead in tap water, dramatically expand consumer warnings and consider the costly, time-consuming process of removing lead service lines.
Lead levels can vary widely in communities and even within individual homes. The EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion, spelled out in the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, was intended to flag widespread corrosion problems in a community’s lead pipes and plumbing. Rather than basing the standard on the health hazards posed by lead, regulators chose the limit largely because at the time they thought most water systems could easily meet it.
At one home in Lake Zurich in Lake County, testing in 2011 found a staggering 2,340 parts per billion. Another test that year in Berwyn came back at 1,840 parts per billion.
Other water systems that have reported finding lead levels higher than 40 since 2011 include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet and the Illinois Youth Center near St. Charles.
Removing lead service lines would help fix the problem, but most officials are deterred by the high cost of a replacement program and legal questions about who should pay. Depending on local laws, the pipes may be considered private property or jointly owned by the water system and homeowners.
Ongoing studies in Flint could prompt more stringent communitywide standards. The World Health Organization says lead levels should be limited to no more than 10 parts per billion in 10 percent of homes tested. Some researchers think the acceptable limit should be as low as 5 parts per billion.
In Illinois, the state EPA plans to begin requiring water systems to advise anyone with a lead test exceeding 15 parts per billion to flush their taps after water hasn’t been used for several hours and to consider buying a filter.
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