How Antioch solved the problem of lead in its water
Part 3: Recent water violations in 33% of analyzed suburbs
As anywhere, elevated lead readings in a few water samples is not uncommon in Antioch.
But when the village's 2010 results came back with seven of the 30 samples reading above the federal "action level" of 15 parts per billion and all but six samples containing measurable levels of lead, Dave Hanson knew something was very wrong.
One property reported a lead reading in a liter of water at 270 parts per billion, or 18 times the federal limit.
"We talked to some engineers, because we normally don't have this problem and asked them, 'what's going on?'" Hanson, the village's water supervisor, said. "Then, we started looking in the area where we were getting the higher results."
Because lead testing is done at properties more susceptible to contamination, which usually means a town's older housing stock, Hanson could see a pattern emerge when the addresses were plotted on a map.
The properties with higher readings were clustered near a massive road repaving and sewer replacement project. Engineers were able to deduce that vibrations caused by the construction were shaking loose phosphates that coat pipes and keep lead from leaching into the water, Hanson said.
"We were losing our protection," he said.
Unlike most suburban water samples that exceed federal limits for lead contamination, Antioch's problem wasn't localized. If it had been isolated to one property, it wouldn't have received the attention it did. That's because there's no requirement for intervention or assistance until testing shows more widespread issues throughout the entire water system. The lack of protocols for persistent contamination at a single sampling site is a significant oversight, public health experts complain.
Lead is still an issue
Older homes with lead service connection lines to the village's water mains were particularly at risk, Hanson said.
Immediately, public works crews began re-treating the system with the phosphate compound to re-coat the pipes. Shortly afterward, following Illinois Environmental Protection Agency protocols, the village retested as many of the original 30 properties as it could and added 30 more properties throughout town to the testing regimen.
If homeowners from the original sampling group couldn't or wouldn't provide new samples, village officials found owners of neighboring properties with similar plumbing characteristics willing to submit. While lead levels in the new 60 samples were still elevated in the two months following the first batch of tests, they were reduced significantly.
The 30 original samples averaged a lead level at 19.5 parts per billion, according to IEPA data. The results from the 60 later samples yielded an average lead level of 8.4 parts per billion, and only four of the properties recorded lead levels above the federal limit. The following year, most of the same 60 properties were tested again and the average lead level was down to 4.2 parts per billion.
Federal guidelines regarding lead in drinking water suggests 15 parts per billion or more poses a health risk, but medical researchers have suggested those health dangers may exist in water proportions as little as five parts per billion.
Because lead levels had dropped so much by 2011, Antioch didn't have to retest again until 2014, which is the normal IEPA mandated testing cycle.
By then, road construction had completed in the area and village officials had begun a program to help eliminate lead service lines for property owners.
"We approached homeowners if we were doing water main work in their area to let them know it would be cheaper to replace those service lines now than once everything got put back in place," Hanson said. "We got a lot of positive response."
The village's 2014 lead test results showed no properties above the federal limit.
"This was something we took very seriously," Antioch Village Administrator Jim Keim said. "Any community with older developments is going to have these problems."
A Daily Herald analysis of 172 public drinking water systems in 89 suburban communities revealed measurable lead levels in water samples taken in 60 towns. However, none of the suburban systems had enough samples above the federal limit to trigger an IEPA violation over the past three years, according to IEPA data available on the agency's website.
"If it ever gets bad enough, we initiate a lead service line replacement program in a town where they have to remove 7 percent of those lines each year until they meet the definition of lead-free," said Jeri Long, drinking water compliance unit manager for the IEPA.
Water systems in towns that experience some type of lead-related issue are usually caused by older plumbing or fixtures inside a structure that often contain some type of lead. Homes built before 1986 are more susceptible to higher lead levels because the federal Safe Drinking Water Act has reduced allowable lead levels in plumbing fixtures to near negligible amounts, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Ideally the ultimate level of contamination is zero and that's what your goal is," said Theresa O'Grady, group manager for water resources at the Aurora-based engineering firm Crawford, Murphy & Tilly. "One thing that should be noted is that not until 2014 were water and plumbing fixtures finally regulated to contain no lead whatsoever."
Because municipalities don't have to notify the public of lead-related water issues unless problems persist past several testing thresholds, annual water quality reports don't mention much more than how many, if any, sample sites tested above the federal limit.
And while those test results are public, the IEPA website that contains the information isn't layman-friendly. The test results aren't part of a property's record, either.
Ben Purrazzo is a plumber whose two grown children recently bought one of the houses in Antioch that tested above the federal limit in the original batch of 30 samples in 2010. At 270 parts per billion, the sample had the highest lead contamination level in the batch. While Purrazzo knew the property had lead pipes, he had no idea water in the house -- now a business that doesn't use the water -- had tested at that elevated level.
"When you do purchase a property, you should be aware of those things," he said. "We never heard that the levels were that high."
When lead levels aren't immediately made safe in a water system, the IEPA requires operators to notify consumers of the problem. If they don't, they can face discipline from the state agency. But it has to be a systemwide issue. If one sample site is repeatedly a problem, but other system samples are fine, there is no requirement for intervention or notification to neighbors or consumers. That's a communication breakdown that some public health advocates say is worth addressing, since it is far more common than a systemwide problem.
The Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles is illustrative of that issue and how it can go unchecked for years.
The IEPA cited the youth prison for heightened lead levels in 2010. It was also cited for a bevy of violations related to heightened levels of commonly occurring radioactive materials, like radium and radon, and failing to properly notify workers and inmates about the violations, according to the IEPA website.
The Youth Center, a medium-security prison for boys, averages a daily population of about 328 juvenile offenders with an average age of 16 years old, according to its website.
Long said the facility has come into compliance with all water-related issues, but the state agency did "elevate the enforcement against them," which meant additional testing and visits from regulators to ensure fixes were made or other precautions were taken. She said continued violations would have led to fines.
Results from lead tests in September 2014 still show a heightened level at a single sampling site with more than 40 parts per billion, according to IEPA records. It's unknown what the building where the samples with lead were taken from is used for, and Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice officials refused to discuss the details of the violations.
It was the prison's only sample out of 10 submitted that tested above the federal limit in that batch, but it wasn't the first time prison officials were aware of the lead problem at that site. Test results from earlier that year, 2013 and 2010 also show lead levels above the federal limit at that same sampling site.
"The department maintains strict security standards for publicly releasing facility information," said spokesman Michael Theodore. "I can confirm that the issue has been resolved, but am unable to discuss issues pertaining to maintenance at our youth centers."
The youth center has been under increased scrutiny in recent years because of deteriorating conditions to buildings and equipment there. A 2013 report by the John Howard Association of Illinois, a watchdog group that monitors conditions at juvenile justice facilities, cited a growing number of institutional issues plaguing the center. Officials at the association said they are planning to release an update to that report later this year. Yet, despite the group's focus on the facility's problems, Howard Association officials were unaware of the water quality issues.
"Water isn't optional, so it's truly disturbing and something we'll have to look at more closely," said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the association. "The water quality is a new piece of information. But it doesn't surprise me that the problems date back so long."
O'Grady said the water quality issues at the youth center are disconcerting, but because they're confined to one sampling site, it's not an issue that affects the entire facility.
"It's not an overall problem because it's just that one building," O'Grady said. "If I'm there, am I going to drink the water? Probably not. And if I had to, I would make sure to flush the water out before I drank any, though."
Systemwide, of the 2,967 samples submitted for lead testing from the 172 suburban systems in the analysis between 2013 and 2015, only 47 recorded levels above the federal limit. That's less than 2 percent of all the samples, according to IEPA records. Those 47 samples came from 29 different water systems, and only eight of those systems reported multiple samples above the federal limit of 15 parts per billion.
"One bad sample should be enough to be a concern," Vollen-Katz said.