GALESBURG, Ill. — This railroad town promotes its ties to Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and the poet Carl Sandburg. But Galesburg’s long history also shows in a hidden way: Aging pipes have been leaking lead into the drinking water for decades.
Blood tests show cause for concern. One in 20 children under the age of 6 in Knox County had lead levels exceeding the state standard for public health intervention, a rate six times higher than the Illinois average, in 2014.
Galesburg offers just one example of how the problem of lead-tainted drinking water goes far beyond Flint, Michigan, the former auto manufacturing center where the issue exploded into a public health emergency when the city’s entire water system was declared unsafe.
An Associated Press analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data found that nearly 1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans exceeded the federal lead standard at least once between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015. The affected systems are large and small, public and private, and include 278 systems that are owned and operated by schools and day care centers in 41 states.
Galesburg officials downplay the water’s potential contribution to lead poisoning, which can affect children’s mental development. But city councilor Peter Schwartzman called the AP’s findings alarming.
“Most people in Galesburg are not really being told that there is a problem,” said Schwartzman, an environmental scientist. “I’m very close to this and didn’t know it. I feel ignorant.”
The AP reviewed 25 years of sampling data reported by 75,000 drinking water systems that are subject to a federal lead rule that took effect in 1991. Details of the EPA data were first reported by USA Today.
While no amount of lead exposure is considered safe, the rule calls for water systems to keep levels below 15 parts per billion.
If more than 10 percent of sampled high-risk homes are above that level, water agencies must inform customers about the problem and take steps such as adding chemicals to control corrosion and prevent leaching of the lead.
In Galesburg, a community of 31,000 about 200 miles southwest of Chicago, lead levels have exceeded the federal standard in 22 out of 30 testing periods since 1992. City officials say their ground water and water mains are lead-free, but the toxin enters the supply in service lines that deliver water from the streets to 4,700 homes. Lead-based plumbing fixtures that were common in homes built before 1980 also contribute.
The city discovered its most recent problem last fall, when 7 out of 40 samples came back at unacceptable levels. The city followed EPA guidelines by informing residents of the situation two months later. Its notice said that a chemical added to the water since 1993 has been effective in reducing the lead levels and resulted in “lead compliance since 2010,” a misleading statement since no testing was required in 2013 and 2014.
The notice added that recent testing showed the standard had been exceeded “by a narrow margin.” In reality, lead levels were 1.5 times the standard.
Whitney Zielke, 32, said her mother “freaked out” after receiving that notice but that she didn’t know what to think.
“It’s so downplayed,” Zielke said, standing outside her mother’s home on a street where testing revealed high amounts of lead. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we have to tell you this may or may not be happening.’ It’s bogus.”
Critics say the current rule has not done enough to protect public health or to inform individual homeowners about risks. Dozens of systems have exceeded the standard 10 times or more in the last quarter-century, including in Portland, Oregon and Providence, Rhode Island, the data shows.
In a statement, the EPA said events in Flint and elsewhere have raised questions about how the lead rule has been implemented. The agency is considering changes to the rule and urging state water regulators in the meantime to improve lead monitoring.
But the ultimate solution is expensive: It will take billions of dollars to replace millions of miles of lead service lines throughout the country. Those are the lines that connect water mains to homes, schools and businesses, remnants from a time when scientists didn’t understand the dangers caused by lead.
Water operators sought to distance their systems from the situation in Flint, saying they were taking actions to reduce lead.
“We try to minimize it, whatever our contribution is” to childhood lead poisoning, said Joseph Bella, executive director of the Passaic Valley Water Commission in New Jersey, which has repeatedly exceeded the standard.
His agency serves 314,000 customers and has increased its lead sampling. It’s also replacing the last 400 lead service lines the utility owns and is speeding up a $135 million plan to add storage tanks for treated water so phosphate can be added to prevent the corrosion that leads to lead contamination.
Lead problems have been particularly persistent in Massachusetts communities outside Boston such as Malden, Winthrop and Chelsea, which have repeatedly exceeded the limit. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which serves those cities, announced a program last month to make $100 million available in interest-free loans to replace lead service lines.
Several schools have restricted access to their water amid lead concerns.
“The kids are not exposed to it other than hand-washing,” said Sandra Porter, who manages the water system at Ava Head Start in West Plains, Missouri, where a 2014 test revealed lead levels more than four times the federal standard.
The crisis in Flint, where residents have been without tap water for months, has highlighted how tainted water can poison children. Even low levels have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention and academic achievement.
Children age 6 and under and pregnant women — whose bones pass along stored lead to infants — are considered the most vulnerable to lead, which can also damage brains, kidneys and production of red blood cells that supply oxygen.
A close look at Galesburg illustrates some of the regulatory shortcomings that can fail to protect public health.
To save money, Galesburg officials years ago scrapped a program that helped homeowners pay to replace their lead service lines. Now, they say they do not have the $15 million that would be required to replace the lines citywide. Instead, they are spending $15,000 more this year to increase the amount of phosphate they add to the water to inhibit corrosion and, they hope, reduce leaching of the lead pipes.
Galesburg Public Works Director Wayne Carl said that is the most cost-effective way to address the problem, which he insisted doesn’t contribute to childhood lead poisoning.
“We haven’t run into anything that would show it was a concern,” he said, blaming lead paint from the city’s old homes for high levels in children.
After AP inquiries, school Superintendent Ralph Grimm ordered lead sampling at 25 drinking fountains throughout Galesburg schools, which had not been tested for years, if ever. The results showed levels far below the federal standard, a relief to school officials.
Knox County public health officials said they were also unaware that lead levels in Galesburg’s drinking water stood out nationwide. They say they focus on keeping children away from lead paint and toys, and that it was up to the city to operate the water supply. In 2014, lead levels in 1 in 10 county children exceeded the federal standard for public health intervention.
Schwartzman said Galesburg was doing the minimum that’s legally required and should do more. He wants to bring back the service-line replacement program, do more sampling, help residents purchase water filters and increase education on anti-lead strategies such as letting water run in the morning before drinking it.
But Tim Fey, Galesburg’s water operations supervisor, said the city “has been very active” in informing the public. Standing outside his 100-year-old home, Fey said he drinks tap water even though recent testing there revealed lead levels far over the federal limit. The results were disappointing, he said, adding: “It’s all transparent. We’re not hiding anything.”
MEGHAN HOYER AND RYAN J. FOLEY