Water Fountains Everywhere But Fewer Drops To Drink

4:43 minutes

stone water fountain with red and blue filter overlaid
A drinking fountain in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. This fountain is one of at least 550 Chicago Park District fountains that could be targeted for permanent removal. Photo courtesy of WBEZ/Bashirah Mack

state of science icon

This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. A version of this story, by Monica Eng, originally appeared on 91.5 WBEZ in Chicago, Illinois.

The Chicago Park District may shut down half of its outdoor drinking fountains this season in a move aimed at protecting the public from lead exposure, officials say.

The decision comes after two years of the district grappling with high lead levels in the water of hundreds of its drinking fountains. The announcement arrives about six weeks before an estimated 40,000 Chicago kids, ages 6 to 12, start park district day camp. Fountains are a significant source of campers’ hydration. Exposure to lead through drinking water and other sources can impair children’s ability to learn, and can cause behavioral and other problems.

WBEZ learned of the shut-offs through open records requests and an interview this week with Chicago Park District Director of the Environmental Services Dan Cooper.

Curious City first investigated the issue in 2016, when members of the public asked if the city ever tested the water in park district and lake shore fountains for lead. At the time, it hadn’t.

But after multiple inquiries that summer from WBEZ and other news outlets, the park district tested its roughly 1,200 outdoor fountains. The district found that about a fourth of the fountains delivered water with lead levels that violated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action limit of 15 parts per billion. When a municipality finds more than 10 percent of tested homes with water above this lead level, the local government is required to remediate.

[Summer is here, and it’s time to dust off those binoculars and look up.]

Last spring, the district tried to remedy the situation by bypassing push-button controls and running fountains continuously for a month starting in April. This goal was to flush pipes and drinking water of lead sediment, as well as condition the pipes. Most district fountains only release water when a button’s pushed.

Flushing worked for most fountains; about 70 percent delivered water below the federal action level when returned to push-button use. More than 100, however, did not. Their lead levels spiked above federal action levels when returned to normal use, prompting the district to run them continuously all season. This kept lead levels low, but sent millions of gallons of clean, filtered drinking water into sewers.

Officials are taking a different approach this year. Outdoor fountains will be divided into two categories: those that never registered detectable lead levels and those that did.

The 500 or so that have never registered lead issues will operate normally, but the 750 that have registered detectable levels (some up to 80 times the federal action limit) will either be turned off or left on continuous flow.

“We’ll either run them full time or not at all,” says Park’s Environmental Services Director Cooper.

“The larger points of water efficiency and access are really important, and need to be addressed, but in the short term, let’s make sure we are not giving kids brain poison.”

Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been active on the issue of clean drinking water, applauds the move. He says it’s especially important since kids are both the primary users of park facilities and so vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure.

“Closing down those water fountains as an interim step is a good one,” he says. “The larger points of water efficiency and access are really important, and need to be addressed, but in the short term, let’s make sure we are not giving kids brain poison.”

The district is still deciding which lead-contaminated fountains to leave on continuous flow based on traffic volume and the need for water in the area. Cooper estimates that number won’t go higher than 200.

This leaves at least 550 other problematic fountains in lower-traffic areas that Cooper says will “remain off and be evaluated for permanent removal.”

[Let us tell you the tale of the jellyfish, the misunderstood genius of the sea.]

This year, the park district has already permanently removed more than 100 fountains from district property because of lead issues, Cooper says.

The ultimate goal, he says, is to remove problematic fountains from areas where they are rarely used and repair fountains in areas where they are most used. He says six have already been fixed this year, and 20 more are scheduled to be repaired.

The rest of the repairs will happen in stages over the next “few years,” Cooper says, adding that most of the replacement work will involve replacing lead water service lines. Chicago regularly installed such lines until 1986, when the federal government banned the practice.

Curious City questioner Julie Dworkin asked about the continuously running fountains last year. She’s not thrilled with officials’ decision to put so many public fountains out of commission.

“These all seem like bad solutions,” she says. “Isn’t there a solution that keeps the water safe but doesn’t reduce access to water?”

Dworkin works for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and crusades for access to public bathrooms. “I’m concerned about public water fountains for the same reason,” she says.

Dworkin says she has already noticed some of the the hundreds of fountains that have been removed or disabled. She adds: “I get it: The city has limited resources. But they have to figure out a way to get the job done right, so this definitely concerns me.”

Support great science journalism!

Segment Guests

Monica Eng

Monica Eng is a reporter for WBEZ in Chicago, Illinois.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to check in on the state of science.

SPEAKER 1: This is KERA.


SPEAKER 3: St. Louis Public Radio.

SPEAKER 4: Iowa Public Radio News.

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. Summer is the time when people head out to the city parks. But Chicagoans here might notice some things missing from the parks. The drinking fountains. And why? It’s due to lead in some of these fountains.

The city has over 1,200 outdoor drinking fountains. And more of half of those fountains have detectable levels of lead in the drinking water, so the city shut them down. My next guest has been covering this story, and she’s here to fill us in on the details. Monica Ang is a reporter for WBEZ here in Chicago. Welcome to Science Friday.

MONICA ANG: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So why did they shut them down? Because there’s lead hazard in the water?

MONICA ANG: Yeah, to really understand it, you need to go to prehistoric times. And I mean my childhood as a kid in Chicago parks. That’s when all the fountains were running continuously. They just bubbled during the whole summer season. And it seemed like it was a waste of water.

But as we listen to this story, you’ll see it might have actually been a good thing. Because fast forward to, let’s say, about 20 years ago. They said, hey, why don’t you take these and turn them into push button fountains? Let’s stop wasting the water. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Let’s go to 2016. Flint happens. I and a bunch of other journalists say to the city, why don’t you check the water that the kids are drinking in Chicago? Let’s check the schools. Let’s check the park district. What do they find? About a fourth of them are exceeding EPA limits. And those are 15 parts per billion.

That’s not a safety standard, that’s what they thought municipalities could possibly get to. Bottled water, for instance, is five parts per billion. And no level of lead is safe for kid’s developing brains. So they find about one fourth of these are exceeding the limits. So they’re like, OK, let’s shut them down for the summer.

Spring 2017. I get a whole bunch of e-mails and letters. And I notice as I’m riding down the lake, the fountains are running continuously. It’s like I’m back to my childhood again. People write to us and say, what’s happening? The city’s fountains are running continuously outside.

So what it turns out is they were flushing. They thought, if we flush them for a month, maybe we can get all that sediment that’s built up during the dormant period out. It worked for a lot of them. About two about 3/4 it worked for. Another 100 plus fountains they found when you put those back on button use, they had high levels of lead again. So they kept those on continuous the entire summer.

All right, spring 2018. We’re here. And I said, what are you guys up to this year? They said, OK, this year we’ve decided to just shut down more than one half of all outdoor fountains and remove some.

IRA FLATOW: It saves a lot of water, though, doesn’t it?

MONICA ANG: It does save a lot of water. But those that they’ve decided to keep on in high traffic areas that have previously had lead, those will be running continuously until the city can do a longer term sorting out of the. problem.

IRA FLATOW: And, of course, you know as you hear about Flint or are other cities, it’s all in the system. You’d have to replace the system, right? The infrastructure.

MONICA ANG: Yes, therein lies the rub. So you’re going to have to shut them off, which decreases access for the homeless and people who need them. You’re going to have to run them continuously, which wastes water. Or you’re going to have to do the hard work of actually replacing the lead service lines that are under Chicago on mass. The estimate is about 380,000 led service lines, more than any other city in the nation.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re talking then not just about the drinking fountains. We’re talking about people’s homes with the lead lines.

MONICA ANG: That’s right. That’s public and in private homes. And the part in your home that hooks up to the city’s service line that hooks up to the main is your issue. So it’s a huge issue. And as long as we have these lead service lines, we are going to have trace to high levels of lead in our water.

IRA FLATOW: And to replace them is just an enormous expense, right?

MONICA ANG: In a home, it can cost– they estimate about $2,000 to $15,000.

IRA FLATOW: Multiply that by–

MONICA ANG: 380,000, plus the public ones. It’s a lot of money. And I think cities across the nation– Madison, Wisconsin dealt with it. They said, OK, over 11 years we’re going to do this. We’re going to get federal funds, we’re going to get other funds, and we’re going to do the hard grown-up work of facing the issue.

IRA FLATOW: So you think will Chicago do that?

MONICA ANG: Well, with all the journalists out there that are encouraging them to do this big infrastructural work, maybe it’ll happen.

IRA FLATOW: And what kind of reaction have you gotten to your stories?

MONICA ANG: Well, when they shut down half of the fountains, some who were advocates for the homeless said, hey, you know what? How are people supposed to get water? And other people say, you know what? That water that was going all summer, that was a waste, too. Millions of gallons of treated, filtered drinking water.

IRA FLATOW: All right, very interesting. Monica Ang, a reporter for WBEZ here in Chicago.

Copyright © 2018 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

Explore More