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TSPR Local

Issues and Ale: Getting the Lead Out

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Heather Norman
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Moderator Rich Egger (left) leads the lead exposure discussion with the panelists listed left to right: Peter Swartzman, Jeremy Karlin, Michele Gabriel, Erin Olson and Wayne Carl

There are two main issues regarding lead exposure in Galesburg. First, the city failed to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for lead levels in water at some residents' homes during testing last fall.  

Secondly, the city and all of Knox County were found to have some of the highest tested levels of lead in children's blood across the entire state according to report by the Illinois Public Health Department. High readings can indicate lead poisoning, which can have life-long detrimental effects on children.

Those concerns were the basis for an Issues and Ale community discussion moderated by TSPR’s News Director Rich Egger and featuring a panel of city leaders and local public health experts. The discussion focused on lead in older homes, in the water, and what this means for the community. The Issues and Ale event was hosted at the Fat Fish Pub, 158 N. Broad Street in Galesburg on May 12, 2016.

Panelists included:

  • Fifth Ward City Alderman Peter Schwartzman
  • Seventh Ward City Alderman Jeremy Karlin
  • Galesburg Public Works Director & City Engineer Wayne Carl
  • Knox County Health Department Administrators Michele Gabriel, Erin Olson, and Sam Jarvis

The panelists said that these two issues are correlated but that the tainted water at some area homes is not necessarily the biggest source of lead exposure for the areas children.

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An hour of the discussion at the Issues and Ale event in Galesburg.

Illinois has higher rates of lead poisoning among its children than any other state in the nation. The Knox County Health Department recommends that all children ages 6 months to 6 years be screened for possible lead exposure.  

What’s causing the lead exposure in children?

According to the Illinois Public Health Department 2014 Surveillance Report, 81% of the homes in Knox County were built prior to 1978, which was the cutoff date for when lead based products were no longer allowed in the construction process, as in lead-based paint and lead dust.  

Erin Olson with the Knox County Health Department said they’ve found that often children are ingesting lead dust and lead paint chips. She said the health department looks at a variety of possible sources of lead during a home visit.

“Lead is sweet tasting to children so they will go back for it. We do window sills, we do paint, we look at the toys the children are playing with, we look at mini blinds in the home. We look at the hobbies [the parents] do. Are they doing anything with lead? Are they working with automobiles? Are they avid fisherman? Anything like that,” Olson said.

Fixing up older homes that have lead paint, lead dust, lead water pipes, or lead gas lines isn’t a cheap proposition.

During the Issues and Ale event, Galesburg Mayor John Pritchard said the financial burden of fixing up older homes becomes even more exacerbated when many of those properties are in low-income areas of town.

How is Galesburg handling the national spot light?

Galesburg and Knox County's ongoing battle against lead exposure was the focus of a recent AP news report. Galesburg Fifth Ward Alderman Peter Schwartzman was interviewed for the article. He said that he’s since been contacted by local, statewide, and national media outlets to discuss lead exposure.

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Credit TSPR Emily Boyer
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The panel discusses how they've handled the media spotlight on Galesburg's battle with lead exposure

Schwartzman, who is serving his second term on the city council, said before the AP report he was not fully aware of the extent of the city’s lead problems. And he's worried about how Galesburg's time in the limelight will further affect the image of a city already well known for its Maytag plant's closure.

The panelists pointed out Galesburg is not the only city in Illinois dealing with high lead levels in water. And a recent report by the Chicago Tribune noted tests in 170 other communities across the state found high lead levels in the public water supply.

“We were unfortunate to be the focus of that AP story," said Schwartzman. "I do not think Galesburg deserves that negative attention, but I do think it’s sort of a blessing in disguise because it has woken many of us up as to how we can deal with lead issues. Lead is a persistent heavy metal that can do a lot of damage neurologically. And it has long lasting, lifelong effects especially on young children."

Schwartzman and the other panelists explained  what the city is doing to address lead exposure in the city now that they are fully aware of the problem.

How does the city plan to reduce lead exposure?

City leaders maintain that Galesburg’s drinking water does not have lead in it. Rather, some homes have water service lines that taint the tap water. The city said those lines are the homeowner’s responsibility to replace.

But the city does add Phosphate to the drinking water to combat lead levels and corrosion of the city’s copper pipes. Adding the mineral costs the city about $60,000 a year.

After some homes failed to meet EPA standards for lead levels in the fall, the city increased the amount of Phosphate in the drinking water over the winter months.  The city reports that most of those homes did pass a second round of EPA testing this spring.  The city believes construction projects in the area of some tested homes last fall made the lines more susceptible to lead contamination.

But there are no safe levels of lead consumption and the best way to fix the problem is to replace lead service lines at homes. The city estimates that it would cost somewhere between $8 million to $50 million to replace all lead service lines in Galesburg.  

Seventh Ward Alderman Jeremy Karlin jokingly pointed out that funding could be easily found if everyone agreed to raise property taxes by 15%. But he recognizes that proposal wouldn't go over well with taxpayers.

Karlin said the city council is instead working to pass some ordinances regarding lead exposure. Those include some disclosure requirements and lead abatement standards for home owners and landowners who want to sell or rent out their properties. He said the city will also be applying for federal funding to help property owners get the lead out of their homes.

In addition, the city and the Knox County Health Department are leading public education efforts regarding lead exposure.

That includes disseminating information to the public about the dangers of lead poisoning, common sources of lead, and proactive steps people can take to protect themselves.

Those protective steps include:

  • flushing the pipes - that’s allowing the tap water to run for a few minutes before gathering water to drink or cook with so that the tap water that has been sitting stagnant in the lead pipes is discarded;
  • buying a water filter - however, not all of them filter out lead so read boxes carefully;
  • buying bottled water for pregnant women and children.

Galesburg city leaders have also taken a proactive step in creating an online database for landowners, homeowners, and tenants to either search online or call city hall to find out if their property has lead pipes. The city is still working to map out the entire town and some neighborhoods have not yet been added.
Galesburg Public Works Director and City Engineer Wayne Carl said he wants the community to be a model for other towns facing similar issues. 

“We recognize that there is a lead problem in Knox County and our whole goal has always been to get to the bottom of this,” Carl said.

"What can we do to make the biggest impact and lower the lead levels as soon as possible?  So, you’ve heard a lot of things presented here as far as ordinances to different abatement programs and making funding available.

“The city is committed, as well as the health department, to solving this problem. And whether it’s from paint chips or water, it doesn’t matter. We are committed to getting the lead levels down in the children of Knox County and I think now that we are fully aware of the issue, more is being done."

Carl said Galesburg and Knox County want to see a drop in lead levels in children’s blood by the end of the year.