CHICAGO (CBS) – A disturbing study finds that an estimated two-thirds of children under the age of 6 have been exposed to lead through their drinking water.

The study also found that predominantly Black and Latino populations were disproportionately less likely to be tested for lead, but were also disproportionately exposed to contaminated drinking water.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatricsfound that 68% of children under age 6 in Chicago – 129,000 in total – were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water. The study also found that 19% of these children use unfiltered tap water as their primary source of drinking water.

The researchers used a retrospective assessment of lead exposure based on 38,385 household lead tests collected from January 2016 to September 2023. The information was publicly available in Department of Water Management records.

According to the study, machine learning and microsimulation were used to estimate lead exposure among children across the city.

The study defined water as contaminated if most tests within a census block showed a lead concentration of 1 part per billion or higher on the second collection. This value was chosen because no amount of lead at all in drinking water is considered safe and one ppb is the detection limit in lead water tests.

The study warned that elevated blood lead levels can lead to cognitive developmental deficits and other health risks in children.

“The effects of low-level, long-term exposure to lead-contaminated drinking water may not be easily recognized at the individual level,” the study says. “Instead, there could be an increase in adverse health outcomes at the population level, such as: B. a lower average population-level intelligence quotient or an increase in premature births, highlighting the need for reduced exposure to lead-contaminated drinking water.”

The study also concluded that Black and Latino households disproportionately drink bottled water, while white households disproportionately drink tap water. However, the study emphasized that bottled water is not necessarily less contaminated with lead than tap water – as the US Food and Drug Administration sets the lower limit for lead in bottled water at five ppb. The study also found that using filtered tap water does not necessarily prevent lead exposure.

“The racial and ethnic disparities that exist are indicative of the many ways in which environmental racism can manifest itself. Lower screening rates, lower tap water consumption, and higher lead exposure in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods may indicate distrust of water sources or a lack of community engagement,” the study says. “Neighborhoods with high risk assessments and low screening Rates were largely concentrated on the south and west sides of the city, consistent with the city’s geographic history of segregation and disinvestment.”

Benjamin Huynh, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is the study’s lead author. He reiterated that no amount of lead in water is safe.

“The goal is to have no lead in the water at all,” Huynh said, “and we know from science that even small amounts of lead in the water can have an impact on your child.”

However, Huynh also pointed out that the results of the study should not allow comparison with the high-profile water crises of recent years.

“I don’t think we need to sound the alarm,” Huynh said. “It’s not as bad as that Flint Crisis. Your child will not be hospitalized because of the lead levels we see. But yes, I think there is some concern – because even that low level of lead can affect your child without you even realizing it.”

Additionally, exposure to lead paint dust remains the leading cause of elevated blood levels in Chicago children. That’s why the Chicago Department of Public Health has invested in robust lead-based paint and dust inspection and mitigation, particularly in the hardest-hit communities.

In a statement, the Chicago Department of Water Management said it objected to the sampling in the study. She said it only shows whether or not there is a lead supply line, not routine exposure.

The city also said lead tests showed the water met U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Chicago has 380,000 Lead Service Lines. City officials estimate that replacing all of these parts will cost up to $9 billion.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Water Management reiterated that it has implemented five programs to remove the city’s main service lines and is offering free water testing to its residents.

Last November The Biden administration announced a $336 million low-interest loan for Chicago through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to replace up to 30,000 lead pipes.

Elizabeth Chin of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Mathew Kiang of the Stanford University School of Medicine also authored the study.

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