More than 100 Chicago Park District drinking fountains have been running nonstop for months — their on and off buttons intentionally disabled by the district.
This week, park officials revealed why. They made the move, they said, because tests showed these fountains deliver dangerously high lead-levels when they are returned to manual push-button operation. A continuous flow of water, however, reduces the lead levels substantially, officials said.
The policy comes more than a year after the district identified fountains with high lead levels, and more than a decade after it implemented efforts to cut the amount of water wasted by fountains.
WBEZ’s Curious City started investigating the issue after receiving multiple questions from the public about why all of the district’s nearly 1,900 outdoor fountains had been running continuously since April.
The district explained last month that the nonstop flow was part of a new protocol to flush and condition the fountain pipes “for approximately a month” after turning them on for the spring. The protocol was in direct response to 2016 tests that found dangerously high lead-levels in 452 outdoor Chicago park fountains — some 80 times higher than the EPA limit.
U.S. health officials say that no level of lead exposure is safe. But the U.S Environmental Protection Agency has set 15 parts of lead per billion as its action level in water supplies. When more than 10 percent of water samples in a given municipality check in at 15 ppb or more, officials must remediate the problem.
After finding high lead-contamination in 452 outdoor park district drinking fountains last year, the city says it collected about 1,900 more outdoor samples this spring. Results of the sampling found that, after a month of flushing, 70 percent of the 452 fountains identified as having high lead levels last year met EPA standards when returned to normal push-button control.
But the remaining 30 percent of those checked (or 107 outdoor fountains across the city) delivered lead levels that still violated EPA standards when they were returned to manual control. Thus, they are now being kept on continuous flow through the season, which typically ends in mid fall.
Six more fountains, the district said, continued to deliver exceedingly high levels of lead even under continuous flow conditions, and have been shut off.
In addition to the outdoor fountains, park officials have recently been testing indoor fountains and sinks, 14 of which failed 2016 tests. This year, an additional eight have been disabled after failing tests.
Does this mean that any fountain still running continuously in a Chicago park has failed a lead test? Not necessarily. District officials said another 100-plus fountains are still on after being turned on for spring flushing. Officials said it has taken longer than anticipated for city plumbers to get around to turning them off.
WBEZ tests estimate that every day a single fountain spigot is left on results in the loss of about 575 gallons of clean filtered drinking water. The city was so concerned about this kind of water waste that it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2003 to retrofit its fountains with on and off buttons.
Park officials said diagnostic tests have not yet pinpointed exactly where the majority of lead contamination is coming from, but possibilities include lead service pipes, brass fittings, fixtures and soldering work.
Preliminary results of city water fountain testing were presented in a report to the Chicago Park District’s Board of Commissioners last week, but no official alerts have been sent out to the public to help explain the evolving situation. The district said it has, however, offered statements to journalists who ask about it.
WBEZ has asked the park district to supply it with records of its 2017 test results showing lead levels found in each fountain. At press time the data was still not available.
District officials said they will continue to test and monitor fountains throughout the summer with rapid detection tests. If any problems are found, those tests can be followed up with additional lab analyses.
Parks with outdoor fountains left on continuous flow for lead reasons:
- Athletic Field
- Brown Memorial
- Dearborn (2 fountains)
- Gompers (2 fountains)
- Grant (6 fountains)
- Green Briar (2 fountains)
- Horner (4 fountains)
- Indian Road
- Jackson (Robert)
- Jefferson (Nancy)
- Junction Grove
- Juneway Beach
- Kenwood Community Center
- Lincoln Park (3 fountains)
- Loyola (3 fountains)
- McGuane (2 fountains)
- Metcalfe (2 fountains)
- Midway Plaisance
- Minuteman (2 fountains)
- Moccasin Ranch
- Mount Greenwood (2 fountains)
- North Mayfair
- Olympia (2 fountains)
- Oriole (2 fountains)
- Park 422 (Near Congress and S. Kedzie)
- Portage (6 fountains)
- Prairie Wolf
- Prospect Gardens
- Railroad Junction
- Russell Square (3 fountains)
- South Shore
- Valley Forge
- Washington (South Side, 5200 S. Hyde Park Blvd.) (7 fountains)
- Wilson (Frank)
List of parks with at least one outdoor fountains that has been shut down because it still exceeds EPA lead levels even when running continuously:
Monica Eng is a WBEZ food and health reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org