Many fountains in Chicago’s parks are too dangerous to turn off

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More than 100 water fountains in the Chicago Park District have been running nonstop for months – their on and off buttons are intentionally disabled by the district.

This week, park officials revealed why. They took the plunge, they said, because tests have shown these fountains deliver dangerously high levels of lead when they are returned to manual push-button operation. Continuous water flow, however, significantly reduces lead levels, officials said.

The policy comes more than a year after the district identified fountains with high lead content and more than a decade after implementing efforts to reduce the amount of water wasted by fountains.

WBEZ Curious city began investigating the issue after receiving several questions from the public about why all of the district’s nearly 1,900 outdoor fountains have been operating continuously since April.

the district explained last month that the continuous flow was part of a new protocol to flush and condition the fountain pipes “for about a month” after turning them on for the spring. The protocol was a direct response to 2016 tests which found dangerously high levels of lead in 452 outdoor fountains in Chicago’s park, about 80 times the EPA limit.

US health officials say no level of lead exposure is safe. But the United States Environmental Protection Agency has set its level of intervention in the water supply at 15 parts of lead per billion. When more than 10 percent of the water samples in a given municipality reach 15 ppb or more, authorities must remedy the problem.

After discovering heavy lead contamination in 452 outdoor parks district drinking water fountains last year, the city said it collected about 1,900 additional outdoor samples this spring. Sampling results revealed that after a month of flushing, 70 percent of the 452 fountains identified as having high lead levels last year met EPA standards when they returned to normal ordering. by push button.

But the remaining 30 percent of those screened (or 107 outdoor fountains across town) provided lead levels that still violated EPA standards when brought back to manual control. Thus, they are now kept in a continuous flow throughout the season, which usually ends in the middle of fall.

Six other fountains, the district said, continued to deliver extremely high lead levels, even under continuous flow conditions, and were shut down.

In addition to outdoor fountains, park officials recently tested indoor fountains and sinks, 14 of which failed 2016 tests. This year, eight more were turned off after failing tests.

Does that mean that a still running fountain in a Chicago park has failed a lead test? Not necessarily. District officials said more than 100 other fountains were still on after being turned on for the spring flush. Officials said it took longer than expected for the city’s plumbers to turn them off.

WBEZ tests estimate that each day a single fountain faucet is left on results in the loss of approximately 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 upgrade its fountains with on / off buttons.

Park officials said diagnostic tests had not yet determined exactly where the majority of the lead contamination came from, but possibilities include lead service pipes, brass fittings, fixtures and welding work.

Preliminary results of tests of the city’s water fountains were presented in a report to the Chicago Park District Council of Commissioners last week, but no official alert has been sent to the public to help explain the evolution of the situation. The district, however, said it offered statements to journalists who questioned it.

WBEZ has asked the park district to provide it with records of its 2017 test results showing the lead levels found in each fountain. At the time of going to press, data was still not available.

District officials said they would continue to test and monitor the fountains throughout the summer with rapid detection tests. If any issues are found, these tests may be followed by additional lab analysis.

Parks with outdoor fountains left in continuous flow for reasons of lead:

  • Ashmore
  • Athletic field
  • California
  • Andersonville
  • Brown Memorial
  • Brands
  • Cole
  • Cornell
  • Dearborn (2 fountains)
  • emerald
  • Emmerson
  • Gauge
  • Gately
  • Gompers (2 fountains)
  • Grandiose
  • Grant (6 fountains)
  • Grape seed
  • Green heather (2 fountains)
  • Griffin
  • Vigorous
  • Horner (4 fountains)
  • indian road
  • Jackson (Robert)
  • Jefferson (Nancy)
  • Junction grove
  • Juneway Beach
  • Kennedy
  • Kenwood Community Center
  • Kilbourn
  • Lamb
  • Lawler
  • Lincoln Park (3 fountains)
  • Loyola (3 fountains)
  • Malus
  • McGuane (2 fountains)
  • McKiernan
  • Metcalfe (2 fountains)
  • Halfway fun
  • Minuteman (2 fountains)
  • Moccasin ranch
  • Monument
  • Moran
  • Mount Greenwood (2 fountains)
  • Nichols
  • Normandy
  • North Mayfair
  • Ogden
  • Olympia (2 fountains)
  • Loriot (2 fountains)
  • Park 422 (Near Congress and S. Kedzie)
  • Pastor
  • Periwinkle
  • Portage (6 fountains)
  • Prairie wolf
  • Perspective Gardens
  • Railway junction
  • Revere
  • Robichaux
  • Russell Square (3 fountains)
  • Sherman
  • Sintique
  • South Shore
  • Spruce
  • beer
  • Strohacker
  • Sycamore
  • Thuis
  • Trebes
  • Valley Forge
  • Walnut
  • Washington (South Side, 5200 S. Hyde Park Blvd.) (7 fountains)
  • Wentworth
  • Wilson (Frank)

List of parks with at least one outdoor fountain that has been closed because it still exceeds EPA lead levels even in continuous operation:

  • Arrigo
  • Ellis
  • To agree
  • Horner
  • Park view
  • Toouhy


Monica Eng is a WBEZ Food and Health reporter. Follow her on @monicaeng or write to him at [email protected]

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