Campus / Community / Featured / News / April 13, 2016

High lead levels generate concern

(Graphic by Donna Boguslavsky/TKS)

(Graphic by Donna Boguslavsky/TKS)

Junior Jonathan Tupper knew his head felt foggier in Galesburg.

When a friend asked him if he noticed the Galesburg water made him duller, he realized his problems were related to the water he was drinking at Knox. When he drank the water in Galesburg, he was unable to concentrate. But at home on the north side of Chicago, he wasn’t as lethargic.

Since officials declared a national state of emergency in Flint, Michigan this year, there’s been a growing nationwide concern about lead levels in water across the country.

But authorities insist Galesburg, Illinois is not Flint, Michigan.

“We’re not seeing the same levels and these are two very different states Michigan is this special case where they’ve taken it to the nth degree,” said Assistant Professor of Anthropology-Sociology Teresa Gonzales, who contributed a blog post on the water crisis to “Everyday Sociology.” “We don’t have, at the same rate, the level of urban failure in terms of economics.”

Even so, lead levels have always been high in Knox County, said Sam Jarvis, Director of Health Protection at the Knox County Health Department.

“I wouldn’t say it’s anything new. It’s just new to people hearing it for the first time,” he said.

According to the Illinois Surveillance Report released in 2014, 13.1 percent of children tested had blood lead levels that exceeded five micrograms per deciliter — the Center for Disease Control’s reference point for elevated lead levels in children 3 years old, nearly double the state average. It’s not just the water – 81 percent of homes in the county were built before 1978, when homes still used lead paint. In Galesburg, where 4,700 homes have lead service lines, risk of lead exposure in water is also possible.

“It’s hard to directly link what exactly the source is,” Jarvis said.

In Galesburg, lead levels in water exceeded federal standards in four of 30 homes tested in 2015. The city has exceeded federal standards in 22 of 30 tests since 1992, when the city started using a phosphate inhibitor – a product in the water that coats the inside of pipes to reduce lead exposure. Right now, the city spends $35,000 a year on phosphate inhibitors, according to City Engineer Wayne Carl.

“It’s not just Galesburg. Everybody used lead service lines back in the day, and everybody still has good portion of their system that has lead service lines,” said City Engineer Wayne Carl.

Overall, the city’s been through five phosphate inhibitors, and when the city met federal standards in 2010, it went from testing 60 homes every six months to 30 homes every three years.

These 30 homes are tested on a voluntary basis, and samples are sent to a lab in Peoria. The city looks for consistent participants so they can map trends, but homeowners sometimes opt out or move away.

When a city exceeds federal standards, it’s required to send a notice out to its residents. Residents may be quick to make connections between Galesburg and Flint.

“You have to let the public know, and I think that’s where [Flint] dropped the ball up there, and I think that just ballooned into something bigger,” said Water Operations Supervisor Tim Fey.

Post-baccalaureate Oakton Reynolds was notified after he came for Winter Term. The letter explained that his home on 1st Street might have higher lead levels.

“I just thought ‘Oh god, this isn’t good,’” he said. He and his roommates contacted their landlord and contacted the city to have their water tested, but Reynolds said the call didn’t go through.

“It wasn’t as easy as the letter said,” Reynolds remembers.

They’re not too concerned — they’ll only be living there until June and their landlord says the once-lead pipes were replaced with PCB pipes — but they still use a water filter when they drink or cook.

Homeowners may replace their service lines, but hiring a plumber may cost between $2,000 and $3,000. But fixing high lead levels in a home is also costly and time consuming. When a child’s blood lead level exceeds 10 micrograms per deciliter, the state is required to step in and do an environmental investigation.

This involves taking scrapings for lead paint, dusting on windows and looking at every floor, wall, ceiling, baseboard, toys and anything else that may contain lead.

“Large Victorian homes in Galesburg take a long time,” Jarvis said.

According to Vice President for Finance Keith Archer, Knox will be testing water in all buildings but starting with 11 buildings with older service lines. Of those, five are on West Street, including Casa Latina and Sigma Chi.

Senior Doug Hulsether said he’s glad Q&A House is getting tested considering how many visitors they get, but the tests still don’t make a huge difference.

“There’s not really much we can do until they have the results of the test,” he said. “And even then they can’t do anything about it until we’re off campus at the end of the year.”

Junior Adedoja Aofolajuwonlo lives in Harambee House, but Archer’s email still put her on edge. She thought about all the tap water she drinks from the kitchen sink in Harambee and emailed Archer to ask if her house was at risk. She was relieved to find that her house didn’t make the list.

“I just felt more comfortable, like what’s going to happen to me?” she said.


Kate Mishkin
Kate Mishkin is a senior majoring in English literature and minoring in journalism. She started working for TKS as a freshman and subsequently served as managing editor, co-news editor and co-mosaic editor. Kate is the recipient of four awards from the Illinois College Press Association for news and feature stories and one award from the Associated Collegiate Press. She won the Theodore Hazen Kimble Prize in 2015 and 2014 and the Ida M. Tarbell Prize in Investigate Journalism in 2014. She has interned at FILTER Magazine, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WGIL radio and the Virginian-Pilot.

Twitter: @KateMishkin

Tags:  cultural houses Flint health department Knox County lead lead poisoning

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