The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Drinking Water Contamination in Illinois Schools

May 15, 2023

For many years, children throughout Illinois and the country, especially in poor and working-class communities, have been exposed to deadly lead-laced drinking water in their schools. And for many years, capitalist politicians have looked the other way, trying to shield the scope of the problem from public view, and avoid meaningful action to correct the problem.

Since the Flint, Michigan water crisis in 2016, fueled and deepened by inaction of city government officials, the dangers to children of lead in drinking water have been widely known. Even in very small amounts, consumption of lead damages developing brains, lowers IQ and can cause attention deficit disorders, hearing loss, slow growth, and other medical and behavioral problems.

Some state governments were prodded into taking some action. In 2017, Illinois passed a law that required schools to test for lead content in school faucets and sinks, and report results to a state agency by the end of 2018.

Although the program was very limited, excluding schools with students in sixth grade and up, and those built after 2000, it required schools to inform parents if drinking water lead content exceeded five parts per billion.

But the law failed to require any action to replace lead water pipes that are known to cause the problem, even in the most contaminated schools. And most critically, both capitalist parties, and the state and federal governments they run, failed to provide the desperately needed funding to aid schools that needed to do so.

A recent investigation revealed that the testing program, as limited as it is, was never completed. The Illinois Department of Public Health, responsible for overseeing the law, never ensured that the eligible schools conducted and submitted test results, and never made public or kept accurate records of the results. As a result, the full scope of the problem in Illinois remains unknown.

But the incomplete data compiled did reveal that deadly drinking water contamination is present in schools throughout the state. Eighty-six percent of the 2100 Illinois schools that performed testing found lead in their schools drinking water. Sixty-four percent reported lead content in excess of the five parts per billion level that required parent notification. Kankakee District 111 identified lead in each of the district’s 11 buildings. Six of these buildings had lead levels over 1000 parts per billion. Twain Elementary in Kankakee recorded a staggering 6,800 parts per billion, a level that the EPA classifies as hazardous waste!

In Chicago, where more extensive testing was performed during this program and in subsequent years, 70% of the 550 schools tested had at least one drinking water source that registered above five parts per billion.

Some school districts, in wealthy suburbs, spent millions on programs to replace their schools’ lead pipes. But most took little or no action due to lack of funding.

A civilized social system, one that would outlaw trillions upon trillions in war spending, would have no problem ensuring its children were safe from toxic chemicals and other hazards while at school.