When administrators at Open Arms Christian Child Development Center in Glenview, Illinois, learned they had to test their water for lead to keep their license, it sent them down an expensive and time-consuming path.
The mandatory testing, required under a 2017 state law, revealed trace amounts of the toxic metal at some of the day care’s drinking water fixtures. It took hours of plumbing work, several pounds’ worth of new metal fixtures, more than two years and thousands of dollars before the day care was able to reduce its water lead levels below the threshold set by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
It didn’t help that the state did not finalize lists of approved water testing vendors or set the new process in stone before the first testing deadlines, leaving day cares to “scramble,” said facility business manager Kathy Gerken. Day care director Jessy Dinkelman, a former teacher and “not a pipe specialist,” noted that the requirements were completely outside of the day care leadership’s expertise.
“It was like, well yeah we have to fix it; this is what we considered our responsibility,” Dinkelman said. “But it would have been nice if (the state) had been like, ‘OK here’s what we know; let us help you through this.’ Rather than saying, ‘All right, what are you going to do to fix it?’”
Day care centers throughout Illinois have faced similar challenges thanks to the 2017 law, which also required schools to test their drinking water for brain-damaging lead.
The law required schools to notify parents if elevated levels of lead were found but didn’t mandate any further action. Day cares faced stricter standards in part because of their particularly young and vulnerable clientele, who may get an outsized portion of their nutrients from formula mixed with tap water. These businesses risked losing their license if they failed to test for lead and reduce the contamination.
Research has shown that lead exposure affects the brain and its neurons, impairing learning and memory and disrupting brain development and behavior.
The Tribune obtained lead testing results for both schools and day cares through public records requests. But despite the heightened risk for young children at day cares, limitations in the data prevent a full accounting of the extent of the problem. Here is what we do know about the lead testing regulations and their impact:
So what did day cares have to do, exactly?
Representatives from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services visit day care operations annually and make sure the facilities are up to date on various health and safety regulations; the operator’s license is renewed every three years. New facilities also undergo review.
As a result of the 2017 law, DCFS now expects to see proof that the day care has tested its drinking water for lead, if it’s located in a building constructed before Jan. 2, 2000.
During the first few years of the law’s existence, no money was available to help day cares pay for this new testing requirement. That meant owners had to figure out a way to foot the bill on their own.
The Tribune asked some day cares what their testing costs were, and at some bigger operations it was not cheap. A Glencoe Park District official said the district spent $6,300 to test all the drinking fixtures at the Takiff Center in 2017. The total cost for testing at Open Arms Daycare Center in Glenview was about $4,000, Gerken said.
Day cares still undergoing testing to meet the state requirements can now register for free test kits covered by federal grants and the Illinois Department of Public Health.
If elevated levels of lead were found — above 2 parts per billion — day care owners had to take further action. More on that in a moment.
How many day cares in Illinois found elevated lead levels?
In short, we don't really know. Here's why.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services tracks compliance with its lead testing standards, but the Tribune can't tell exactly how many day cares identified lead since 2017 based on the data the department provided.
The Tribune first sought and reviewed the department's lead results through a public records request in spring 2021. When reporters asked for updated data in 2022, small but substantial changes turned up in the results. For example: Results for some day cares were included in the 2021 data but missing from the 2022 version. Sometimes, one data set showed that a day care had identified elevated lead on a particular testing date, but the other data set had the day care NOT identifying lead on that same date. The department provided the Tribune with a third data set this spring that contained some similar discrepancies.
Hundreds of licensed day cares also showed no testing results at all, even though several confirmed to Tribune reporters that they had tested their water as part of their license renewal. After the Tribune raised questions about the inconsistencies, a DCFS data management associate deputy director clarified that each set of data was pulled from only the most recent licensing cycle, and the department is now working to provide a historical record of the testing results.
In addition, it was impossible to know from the data what the actual test results were. For each testing date, DCFS simply marked each facility as "y" or "n" based on whether any test found lead above 2 parts per billion. How many fixtures had elevated lead, what types of fixtures had elevated lead (bathroom sinks, kitchen sinks or drinking fountains), how much lead was found — all of this is not included in the state's data.
For now, the best the Tribune can say is that, between the three data sets, more than 1,400 day care centers identified a water lead level above 2 parts per billion, the threshold where DCFS requires mitigation.
For a group of day cares where the Tribune obtained test results and mitigation plans submitted to the state, documents showed elevated lead findings ranged from 2.01 parts per billion at a preschool drinking source to 1,640 parts per billion at a day care's kitchen sink.
What if a day care found lead in its water?
If a day care found water lead levels above 2 parts per billion at a drinking source, DCFS required that owners notify parents by posting their results in a visible area at the day care, develop a mitigation plan to reduce lead, and send both their plan and the results to DCFS.
Day care owners are obviously far more likely to be trained in early childhood education than in environmental engineering or plumbing. But the law and administrative code set by DCFS still holds them responsible for both figuring out how to solve the problem and paying for any necessary repairs.
When the law first took effect, day care owners told the Tribune, they were given very little guidance from the state and instead relied on advice from private companies they hired or on their own research in navigating next steps. One day care director said she spent hours researching what a mitigation plan was and what information it should include as she hurried to address the lead problems at the facility. More guidance is now available to day care facilities thanks in part to a federal grant that funded a state partnership with Elevate Energy.
Heather Tarczan, director of communications for DCFS, said she could not comment on how the process played out under the previous administration but noted that lead testing and mitigation are also outside the department's expertise.
"We're not water treatment experts," Tarczan said. "We want (day cares) to succeed as well. We're not going to not help, but there's a limitation to what exactly we can guide them to.
Curious about what steps day cares took after finding lead, the Tribune requested the results and mitigation plans that more than 80 day cares sent to the state. The bulk of the day cares were larger facilities serving at least 100 children, though reporters requested test results and mitigation plans from some smaller child care centers as well.
The records show that dozens of day cares quickly turned to low- or no-cost options such as posting “do not drink” signs at fixtures, using lead filters and running taps before first use to flush out water that had been sitting in pipes. Day cares also commonly reported replacing sinks, drinking fountains and other fixtures, which is more costly.
Lindsay McCormick of the Environmental Defense Fund said solutions that rely on human behavior — such as manually flushing taps, obeying signs and regularly replacing filters — are not good long-term fixes. She described filters, for example, as a “band-aid solution.”
More permanent solutions recommended by McCormick and other experts include installing automatic flushing mechanisms that do not fall prey to human error and updating pipes and fixtures with materials that meet modern plumbing standards and contain only small amounts of lead.
Under the regulations, day cares are supposed to take interim measures to reduce water lead levels as well as develop full mitigation plans. Longer-term solutions can include “installation of mechanical flushing devices, replacement of lead-based lines or fixtures, or reverse osmosis filters installed at affected drinking water fixtures,” according to department regulations.
Day cares where testing had previously identified lead also need to show the state two subsequent tests without elevated lead. The first two attempts must occur six months and a year after a facility executes a mitigation plan.
Some day cares have found it difficult to get water lead levels below the 2 parts per billion threshold, even after several rounds of mitigation.
Take day care director Lori Schneider’s experience in suburban Northbrook. Schneider tested all the drinking water at the Christian child care center Seeds of Grace for the first time in 2018 and was surprised to find some fixtures with lead above the threshold set by DCFS. Schneider paid plumbers to tear out and replace old pipes and worked with the village to determine if the public water itself was to blame.
This year, Schneider said the center still had four fixtures that continued to exceed the DCFS threshold, coming in a tick over the 2 parts per billion limit even though the fixtures were new. All four are hand-washing sinks located in areas of the facility that only adults can access, she said.
“We’re a little bit baffled,” Schneider said.
How are day cares supposed to pay for all these fixes?
In Chicago, two programs recently launched to cover mitigation costs for day care centers still undergoing testing and repairs. Other places are mostly out of luck.
Elevate Energy, the nonprofit working with the Illinois Department of Public Health, has a separate program that provides funds to pay for repairs at Chicago day cares, while Chicago’s Department of Water Management last year announced that it would prioritize lead service line replacements to licensed day care facilities in low-income neighborhoods at no cost.
Service lines are the pipes that connect water mains to homes and smaller commercial buildings. If made of lead, the lines can leach dangerous amounts of the toxic metal into drinking water, especially if they’ve been jostled during other construction work, such as water main replacements. Chicago has more lead service lines than any other city in the country, largely because the city’s plumbing code required them until 1986, and the city also is finishing up a long-term project to update old water mains. The cost of replacing a lead service line is hefty, upward of $15,000 to tear up the sidewalk and replace the lead piping.
El Hogar del Niño, a day care facility in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood that mostly serves low-income families, received financial and logistical support from Elevate Energy after testing showed elevated water lead levels at fixtures including a sink in their toddler room.
Elevate Energy CEO Anne Evens said at an event hosted at the facility last year that her group helped the day care to replace a lead service line, a water heater and a boiler at the center. Work began in 2017 and took about a year to complete, according to the day care’s former executive director.
Evens acknowledged it would have been tough for the day care to navigate and finance the process on its own. “It’s a little bit of detective work … (and) a level of complexity that includes getting permits, breaking up the streets,” Evens said.
But other Illinois cities and towns also have lead service lines, and no statewide funding has been available to help day cares offset the costs of mitigation.
Though Chicago’s lead problems are well known, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has found significant lead contamination issues in other cities and towns throughout Illinois. As the Tribune reported two years ago, very elevated water lead levels were found at homes in cities including Cicero, University Park, Loves Park, Coal City and East Moline.
Did any day cares actually lose their license as a result of this law?
According to DCFS, no licenses for day cares were revoked solely because of lead testing or mitigation issues. One day care in Springfield was closed because of issues “including but not limited to” elevated lead levels in water, Tarczan said.
What happens if a day care tests and doesn’t find lead?
If a facility tests its drinking water sources and finds water lead levels at or below 2 parts per billion, they face no requirements beyond posting the results and sending them to DCFS. These day cares do not have to test their water again unless they move their center to a new building or their internal plumbing changes, unlike in some other states.
In North Carolina, for example, the health department’s sanitation rules require that day care facilities retest their water three years later. Research has shown that the amount of lead that finds its way into drinking water can be highly variable.
Why were day cares in newer buildings exempt from testing?
Older buildings generally pose greater lead risks, but the rationale for the January 2000 cutoff isn’t exactly clear.
The federal government first set limits in 1986 on how much lead could be used in new plumbing, though pipes could contain up to 8% lead and still be considered “lead free.” In 2014, the government strengthened the definition of “lead free” to mean less than 0.25% lead for materials that come in contact with water.
Researchers have found that even the newer “lead free” plumbing doesn’t consistently prevent lead from leaching into water at very low levels.
So it’s possible that some Illinois day cares have lead in their water but the law didn’t require them to look for it.
Where can I learn more about lead in drinking water?
The Environmental Protection Agency’s website provides helpful tips on reducing water lead levels at any tap, such as using cold water, regularly cleaning faucets’ aerators and letting water run down the drain for a bit before drinking it or using it to cook.
For day care providers, resources and a way to request free testing kits are available at LeadCare Illinois. Day care providers in Chicago facing the need for plumbing repairs following testing can visit LeadCare Complete for information about free plumbing upgrades.
To learn more about Chicago’s free lead service line replacement program for day cares, visit the Chicago Department of Water Management website. The program is currently focused on replacing lead service lines at day cares located in low-income areas.
The city also has several programs that offer some financial assistance for lead service line replacements at homes that are not day care facilities, and free water lead testing is available to any residents who sign up for a test kit.
Interested in required water lead testing that was done at public schools statewide? Visit chicagotribune.com/lead to learn more about what testing results showed at your school or district and what steps were taken following the testing.