Suggestion to abolish bottled water tax amid Chicago tap water lead concern

By Ruojing Liu

Richard Boykin, Cook County Commissioner of the 1st District, suggested Chicago abolish the 5-cent bottled water tax amid concerns over lead contamination in the city’s drinking water system.

The Chicago Tribune recently published a series of stories on possible lead contamination risks in Chicago’s tap water as construction work disrupts service lines that connect households to the city’s main water system. Since then, suspicion over high levels of lead in tap water arose in Southwest communities where, according to the stories, are more susceptible to lead contamination.

The commissioner made the above proposal at a city town hall meeting held at the Home of Life Church March 10.

Reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQs, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement, and effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected. Currently, the blood lead level of concern suggested by CDC is 10 or more microgram per deciliter of lead in blood.

Boykin said he was concerned that these effects of lead in children would lead to less opportunities in terms of societal advancement and development.

“Ultimately what this is about is public health and public safety,” Boykin said. “There are also studies that suggest that high lead levels in water can lead to irritability and violence, so we have an epidemic of gun violence in poor communities. Is the high level of lead in the water somehow contributing to the violence?”

The city of Chicago enacted the Bottled Water Tax starting January 1, 2008, with the tax rate of $0.05 per bottle of water.

“It’s ironic that they are asking people in poor communities to drink water with high lead levels or pay 5 cents extra for bottled water,” Boykin said. He also proposed that the city provide filters for poor communities.

For an old city like Chicago, a large proportion of water service pipelines have used lead, and the city’s been adding corrosion-fighting chemicals to the water that form a coating to prevent lead and copper from leaking into the water. Construction on the line could break that coating.

An investigation of the recent Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis found that the high levels of lead were due to such corrosion-fighting chemicals called orthophosphate not being utilized in the water treatment process.

David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Great Chicago, which operates seven wastewater treatment plants in the Chicago Metro area, said such mis-management is not happening in Chicago.

The water has to stay stagnant for six hours in contact with the lead before it draws out lead. Gary Litherland, freedom of information officer at the city’s Water Management Department suggested at the meeting that the best way to avoid lead contact through water is to let the water flow for about five minutes in the morning before drinking. It should cover the entire service line connected to one’s house which is sometimes made of lead. Flushing the toilet or taking a shower can also clear the line.

Litherland said lead services can only supply up to 2 inches diameters, so higher and larger buildings than single households usually cannot use lead pipes to support its water supply.

The notion that the lead contamination only affects less well-off communities was also dispelled by Litherland, because the water is dynamic and could flow to any part of the city under pressure caused by usage, and the whole water system has the same water provided to all neighborhoods of Chicago.

The most recent monitor numbers read that significantly less than 10 percent contamination samples — an action level mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act — were found in Chicago, said Litherland. If there are still concerns or suspicions that a household’s water has been contaminated, Chicagoans can call 311 to schedule a test conducted for free by the Water Management Department, where three draws of water are taken and tested.

Literhland said currently there’s an estimate wait line of 150 people, and he reminded residents to let the water stay stagnant and avoid any usage for six hours before the test.

Photo at top: Richard Boykin (center), Cook County Commissioner of the 1st District, holds city town hall meeting with local residents at the Home of Life Church March 10 to discuss concerns over high lead levels in Chicago’s drinking water. (Ruojing Liu/MEDILL)