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'It is unacceptable': Sycamore residents frustrated with a lack of guidance or answers to their lead water concerns

Dirty water runs in a Sycamore home
Dirty water runs in a Sycamore home

Sycamore citizens filed a class-action lawsuitagainst the city in 2020 claiming city leaders ignored issues with the water system, leading to high levels of lead in water. In part two of our series looking into lead exposure, WNIJ’s Peter Medlin reports on the lack of guidance or answers Sycamore families say they’ve received when dealing with lead. 

In the summer of 2016, the tap water in Jennifer Campbell’s family’s Sycamore home started to smell. Not just a little bit, it reeked like sewage.

“Several neighbors on Edward street also began noticing that every summer that smell would come back," she said. "We’d be told to empty the water heater and take out a rod and flush it and we did all that and it would still smell pretty bad. And it was the cold water that we mainly complain about anyways.”

By summer 2020, her water was discolored, the smell was awful and wasn’t going away.

“The issue did become so severe," said Campbell, "that the water in our house on Edward street became essentially useless."

So, she and a few neighbors decided to get their water tested to figure out the source of the odor. Campbell said the city couldn’t come out to test because of COVID restrictions, so the DeKalb County Health Department collected a sample.

She said she was told they could use water minimally before testing, which the health department says is not protocol. Water is supposed to sit for six hours before sampling. Unsatisfied with their testing, she hired a private testing company.

“The first draw was 64.5 parts per billion,” she said.

They let her water run a few minutes and collected another: 21.9 parts per billion. Both are well above the EPA’s recommended action levelfor lead of 15 parts per billion in homes.

That was just the beginning of the red tape and bureaucratic hoops she said she’s had to jump through to get answers on what to do once you find lead in your water. It’s led her to file a class-action lawsuit against the city.

“It is unacceptable that so many homes have water that smells like sewage, stains their bathtubs, she said, "nor is it okay to drink water that has lead levels like we've seen in the areas of town."

She’s part of a Facebook pageof over 1,000 Sycamore residents who post pictures of their discolored water and ask why the water makes their clothes smell bad.

Lorna FitzHenry is a member of that group and another Sycamore resident disappointed by a lack of guidance and response to her family’s lead issues.

“When both of my children came back with lead being positive in their system, and one of them being toxic levels -- I expected better," she said. "I expected there would be exact protocols in place on how we're going to treat it. Here’s how we're going to monitor it.”

Her 18-year-old daughter had four micrograms per deciliter lead in her blood. Her 9-year-old daughter Tala’s was 17.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, there is no safe level of lead. FitzHenry was terrified. Could her older daughter’s injuries and other medical issues be traced back to lead? Would her younger daughter have developmental delays?

She says doctors were largely unhelpful. The county health department could only make recommendations like changing her diet to include more green vegetables.

Samina Hadi-Tabassum is a clinical associate professor at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. She was part of a recent pilot program trying to pass legislation and educate healthcare members about lead.

“What happens the minute that a family gets that news that their child has elevated lead levels in their blood?," she said. "And so what we found is there's a lot of discrepancy among the pediatricians as well as among the public health officials."

She said there are a lot of possible health risks, especially with young kids.

“Everything from ADHD, to reading and writing difficulties, to math difficulties, difficulties in what we call executive functioning skills,” said Hadi-Tabassum.

The Illinois EPA visited Lorna’s home and said they found lead on her porches and window sill.

“There's supposed to be a protocol in place where if you are renting, the landlord has X amount of time to get the repairs done for a safe living condition," said FitzHenry. "That didn't happen the entire time I lived there.”

Landlords are supposed to fix the hazardwithin 90 days. Thankfully, Lorna’s kids’ blood lead levels are going down. Both she and Campbell have moved out of Sycamore because of the situation.

Matt Anderson is the director of Public Works in Sycamore.

“The water is safe to drink. We exceed all EPA regulations," he said. "If you're having issues, the vast majority of times that we go out to visit it is something somewhat internal. And we’ve generally been able to pinpoint a solution for people.”

The city has to sample 30 resident homes every few years. In 2020, eight of the 30 samples contained lead. But, the concentration was just over 5 parts per billion, below that EPA action level.

A case of conflicting testing results between certified testing commissioned by the city and EPA-certified testing sought by residents has also fueled concern from citizens.

According to the DeKalb Daily Chronicle, the Illinois EPA is mandating the city increase lead testing.

Northern Illinois University professor Melissa Lenczewski studies environmental microbiology and contaminant hydrology. She said there’s a lot that cities can do to eliminate lead from leaching into water. They can regularly exercise valves and use corrosion inhibitors.

“They put orthophosphates inside of the water. And what that does is it makes like this white coating on the inside of the pipe. So, as the water is going through it, it's not aggressive against the pipe,” she said.

If citizens want to do something on their own, Lenczewski said there are options.

“I usually tell people if you're really concerned about it, get a reverse osmosis system or check out the Water Quality Association to find a proper lead filter," said Lenczewski, "and then use that instead of using bottled water."

Many Sycamore residents have lead service lines that connect their houses to city water mains. There’s been a push both on the federal level and locally in Sycamore to replace those pipes.

Anderson hopes a new lead service pipe removal program will make a big difference. Thanks to a state grant, they’ve identified over 100 homes to replace their lead service lines.

“I think 115 is what we've got right now,"he said. "Again, since it is work on their private property so they have to opt into it."

Anderson said there are water mains that need to be replaced as well, but that it's a maintenance issue that doesn't pertain to lead.

There are still other residents with lead service pipes Anderson hopes they can replace. Many more Sycamore homes might have lead lines, but are listed as “unknown.”

If residents want to learn more about identifying their lead service lines and potentially having them replaced, they can contact the city of Sycamore Water Department.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.