Thirsty?

As the mercury climbs this summer, Chicagoans - including tens of thousands of kids enrolled in summer camps at city parks - will have about 16 percent fewer outdoor water fountains to rely on because lead testing once again has shown the city's tap water is tainted.

The Chicago Park District, in cooperation with the Department of Water Management, has launched its "seasonal flushing" of stagnant water held in pipes below the city's 1,200 outdoor drinking fountains - something begun after Flint, Michigan's issues with lead in drinking water put a spotlight on water quality. But it's not a merely routine event; the city also will deactivate at least 16 percent of those fountains because lead testing has shown they're a danger to users, reducing the city's overall inventory to about 1,000 safe outdoor park fountains.

"I think right now there are about 200 that we don't plan to turn on this summer, and there may be more," said Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the Park District. "Those 200 would have had at least a lead detection."

Beyond detection of lead content greater than 5 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in bottled water by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the water fountains that will be kept off this summer also will have been deemed "low-traffic," Maxey-Faulkner said.

© Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune

The remaining outdoor water fountains will fall into two categories: those that will operate with normal push-button functionality - if you want a drink you push a button and water will flow - and continuous-flow fountains. The latter may show unsafe lead levels when controlled by button, but drop to safe levels when the water runs constantly, Maxey-Faulkner said.

"When water is moving and it is not stagnant then it will run fresh," she said. "If you encounter a water fountain that's running, that means it has been tested and it meets safety standards."

The Park District deactivated about 18 percent of water fountains both outside and inside its facilities in 2016 after an initial round of water testing. Critics of the city's now-annual "seasonal flushing" plan and of continuous-flow water fountains worry about the expense to taxpayers as well as to the environment, as it is literally flushing clean water down the drain.

The Tribune this spring conducted its own analysis into water quality in the city and learned lead was found in nearly 70 percent of the roughly 2,800 homes tested in the past two years.

In more than 100 homes across the city where lead levels reached 15 to 270 ppb in testing kit samples, water department officials conducted follow-up testing that involved drawing 10 consecutive 1-liter samples. Nearly all of those samples contained more than 5 ppb of lead, the Tribune analysis found, with levels generally increasing rather than decreasing as more water flowed out of the taps. Remediation by local government is required when more than 10 percent of tested homes have lead levels of 15 ppb, according to WBEZ, which first reported on the city's intent to keep hundreds of water fountains dry this summer.

Lead is unsafe to consume at any level, according to the EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ingesting tiny concentrations can permanently damage the developing brains of children and contribute to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems later in life. A peer-reviewed study published last month in The Lancet, a London-based medical journal, estimated that more than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to lead exposure.

There is no federal standard for the amount of lead found in tap water at individual homes, but studies have reported harmful effects when concentrations exceed the FDA's standard for bottled water. In a recent peer-reviewed study, EPA scientists cautioned that when children under age 7 drink water containing more than 5 ppb of lead on average, the amount of the metal in their blood can rise above CDC health guidelines.

Chicago Tribune's Michael Hawthorne and Cecilia Reyes contributed.

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