It’s possible up to 90 percent of homes in East Chicago have lead water lines, so all residents should assume they have them and use a properly certified filter, officials said.
Miguel Del Toral, a scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, repeated that recommendation Friday after first making it Jan. 28 in response to questions from residents at an open house for the USS Lead Superfund site in the city’s Calumet neighborhood.
“This is my recommendation for any home in any city with a lead line, regardless of water quality or any other factor,” Del Toral said in a statement.
The EPA tested drinking water at 43 homes in the Superfund site to determine whether excavation work would cause lead to become dislodged from old service lines and enter the water supply.
However, before the agency’s contractors started digging last fall, the EPA found 18 of the 43 homes had lead levels above the action level of 15 parts per billion. EPA has said it views the sampling to be representative of the entire water system, and no further testing is planned because it would show only what is already known.
Lead poses a health risk, especially for young children and pregnant women. Even at low levels, lead can cause irreversible behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity.
Since July, testing has confirmed 18 of the 396 children younger than 7 tested in East Chicago have elevated blood lead levels, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
About 29,000 people live in East Chicago. About 4,000 lived in the two census tracts encompassed by the Superfund site in 2010, but more than half of the 1,000 people living at the West Calumet Housing Complex have moved out since the city issued a relocation order last summer.
Residents in the Superfund site also risk exposure to lead in their soil — which is unrelated to lead in water — and anyone living in a home built before 1978 may be exposed to lead in paint.
Lead in water
The EPA has said there are two reasons it found elevated lead levels in water: "the presence of lead in plumbing materials, and insufficient orthophosphate levels in the drinking water system." Water systems often add orthophosphate to prevent lead and copper from leaching into water from pipes and fixtures.
East Chicago changed the chemical it was using for corrosion control in September under guidance from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, which had been approached by EPA, East Chicago Utilities Director Greg Crowley said. IDEM and the city have been working since October to increase phosphate levels in the system, officials said.
The EPA and city officials have often characterized the problem posed by lead pipes as a legacy issue, the result of choices made up to 100 years ago.
Mark Templeton, an attorney at Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, said residents should be asking the officials they pay for water service what they're doing today.
"The laws are on the books to protect people's health today, and if there are legacy issues, then those legacy issues need to be dealt with now to protect public health and the environment," said Templeton, one of several attorneys working pro bono on behalf of residents. "There are also choices people are making today regarding corrosion control for the entire system."
Goal is to replace lead lines
Crowley said he initially included a plan to replace lead service lines on private property in a petition before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, because he had concerns about lead levels he was seeing at some homes. While none of the results were above 15 ppb, no level of lead is safe, he said.
"That really was a motivation for why we looked at that as far as the rate increase, even before all these issues," he said.
As part of its proposed settlement with the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, the city removed funding for pipe replacement from its petition and instead plans to secure a $3.1 million loan from the State Revolving Fund to replace lead lines, records show.*
However, East Chicago lacks records showing where lead lines are located, Crowley said. The number throughout the city could range from 50 to 90 percent.
"There's nothing that's formally documented," he said. "There's just a lot of speculation."
The sequential testing the EPA did goes beyond what's required under the federal Lead and Copper Rule, but the city is looking if that method can be replicated at a lower cost to help determine where lines need to be replaced, he said. EPA indicated sequential testing costs up to $5,000 per home, Crowley said.
Residents submitted a letter criticizing the removal of financing for lead-line replacement from the city's rate increase case, citing "severe lead contamination" found in water by the EPA. They want the commission to reject a settlement allowing a 55 percent increase in rates or, at the least, provide more time for public comment. The commission has not yet issued a decision.
Samuel Henderson, an attorney with the Hoosier Environmental Council, drafted the letter on behalf of residents.
"It's important to stay aware and stay involved, and keep pushing the city to fix the problem," he said.
* Editor's note: This story has been updated from a previous version.