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New study estimates two-thirds of young children in Chicago exposed to detectable levels of lead in drinking water

In 2015, testing showed a significant spike in blood lead levels in Flint children. (File photo)
Steve Carmody
Michigan Public
In 2015, testing showed a significant spike in blood lead levels in Flint children. (File photo)

There’s a new study that echoes one of the symbols of the Flint water crisis.

Monday, JAMA Pediatrics published a study of lead exposure in drinking water among under the age of six years old in Chicago. The study estimates 68% of children are exposed, with higher rates in Black and Hispanic children.

Health experts say there is no level of lead in drinking water considered to be safe. Lead exposure can have serious health consequences, particularly for children, including developmental deficits, cardiovascular complications, chronic kidney disease, and neurologic complications.

In 2015, tests showing a spike of blood lead levels in Flint children placed a national focus on the city’s water crisis.

Benjamin Huynh is the study’s author. He says lead exposure remains a problem in many communities.

“It is a little disheartening to see that it has been so long that we’ve had this lead exposure in drinking water in children,” said Huynh.

Chicago mandated lead service lines, until 1986, when the federal government banned their use.

The city water department estimates there are more than 400,000 still connecting Chicago’s homes and businesses to city water mains. Those pipes are believed to be a primary source of lead in Chicago’s drinking water.

In the years since a spike in Flint children blood lead levels was detected, the city of Flint has removed more than 10,000 lead service lines. Meanwhile, between 2020 and 2022, the Chicago water department only replaced 280.

Chicago water department officials estimate it will take 40 years and at least $12 billion to replace all of the city’s lead service lines.


This story originally incorrectly referred to blood lead levels in children. We regret the error.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.