Some Chicago-area residents will be able to test the water quality in their homes as part of a Northwestern study that will begin providing free test kits later this year.
Awarded a $3 million federal grant, researchers plan to phase in testing over several years in 350 households, where residents will be able to begin testing immediately for lead. In subsequent years, they will also be able to test for other contaminants such as PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
“The end goal is to empower people with knowledge: the knowledge of whether or not lead is in their water,” said Sara Young, who is leading the project with her husband, Julius Lucks, in a statement from Northwestern. “These tests do this by offering the same certainty and simplicity found in at-home COVID-19 and pregnancy tests.”
Researchers are partnering with community groups to determine who will get the test kits. They said they plan to begin with those with the greatest need, likely low-income households, although recipients have not yet been officially determined.
“Information is power, and these tests make invisible issues visible,” said Young, an associate professor of anthropology and global health. “We hope that families and organizations can use the tests in their daily activities to understand where the problems are in Chicago, and that policymakers can take action based on the information they generate.”
Blacks in Green, a West Woodlawn environmental organization, is partnering with the Northwestern researchers to distribute test kits. Although the specifics of Blacks in Green’s role has yet to be determined, Jeremiah Muhammad, director of water justice for the organization, said he hopes to be involved with data collection and do more than just distribute test kits.
The university is providing resources, Muhammad said, but members of Blacks in Green can provide valuable contributions because of their close relationship with residents.
“When you look at community organizations, we may have the people who have the expertise, but we don’t always have the capacity as we’re working on other projects,” Muhammad said. “We provide an aspect to data collection that Northwestern may not have, if they knew the community like we know the community.”
Vanessa Bly, a co-founder of community organization Bridges//Puentes, said the group will also help distribute test kits in Southeast Side neighborhoods, though when that process will begin is unclear.
“Some people don’t even understand what lead in their water means or what it could mean or if it potentially has already affected them,” Bly said. “We’re excited to get started putting tests that aren’t too much labor into people’s hands. We’re just trying to stir up some good trouble.”
There are approximately 400,000 lead service lines in Chicago. The lead pipes, which bring water into single-family homes and two-flats, were required by law in Chicago until the end of 1986, decades after most other cities banned their use.
Four years ago then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised to begin addressing lead service lines, a problem her predecessors did not acknowledge. By the end of March, fewer than 900 had been replaced.
According to Lucks, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, Chicago residents need to know and understand the quality of the water in their homes.
“Typically people are faced with daily decisions where they get their water from a local source of questionable quality, or they can walk a couple miles, go to a source of better quality. But that takes a ton of work, time, effort, all that stuff,” Lucks said. “So they’ll go to the questionable one first.”
The Northwestern researchers partnered with StemLoop, a startup that sells biosensor technology services, to provide the test kits. Founder and CEO Khalid Alam, a biochemist with a doctorate from the University of Missouri, has collaborated with Lucks throughout his career.
The kits are similar in appearance to at-home COVID tests, according to Alam. The technology is capable of detecting lead in 5 parts per billion in drinking water, the Food and Drug Administration’s limit for bottled water.
Alam said he aims to get the tests to below 2 parts per billion to detect even smaller traces of lead.
“It takes less than half an hour to use, it’s equipment free, it’s a qualitative test,” Alam said. “If we’re actually going to solve lead in drinking water, especially here in Chicago, lab testing isn’t able to scale to collect the amount of data that we need to inform our decision making.”
A 2018 Chicago Tribune analysis found that lead in tap water is a danger throughout Illinois. In a 2021 report, the newspaper found more than 8 of every 10 Illinoisans live in a community where the toxic metal was detected in at least one home during the previous six years.
Ingesting even small amounts of lead has been linked to heart disease, kidney failure and negativel effects on children’s developing brains. In 2018, researchers estimated each year more than 400,000 people die in the United States due to lead exposure.
As the project continues, Lucks and Young plan to identify additional measures to deal with more complex contaminants such as PFAS, known as forever chemicals.
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Testing during the past three years has revealed nearly a million Illinoisans get their drinking water from municipal wells contaminated with toxic forever chemicals at levels exceeding state health guidelines.
Nearly every American has PFAS in their bodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and scientists are finding that tiny concentrations of some forever chemicals can trigger certain health problems.
“Recent studies estimate that up to half of the drinking water in the United States is contaminated with PFAS, but the concentrations are so low that inexpensive detection is challenging,” said William Dichtel, a professor of chemistry and member of the research team, in the Northwestern statement.
Dichtel’s lab is still developing the PFAS test.
The study also goes beyond the scientific aspect of testing water quality. Young first proposed the idea of enabling residents to test water quality as a way to involve the community. The researchers hope the sociological element of the study will help galvanize residents and officials to take action to reduce water contamination.
“Chicago has the most lead pipes in the U.S.,” Lucks said. “The city is trying to replace these things but it’s slow going. What we’re trying to do is provide people with actionable information.”
Maille is a freelance reporter.