The story of the lead in Chicago’s water: Politics and money over public health

A picture of Richard J. Daley, 48th Mayor of Chicago, and Stephen M. Bailey, leader of the Chicago Plumbers Union (source:

A century-old problem and yet no long-term solution

On the 20th of May 2019, the newly elected mayor of the great city of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, first addressed the long-overdue issue of lead poisoning in her inaugural speech. For many of the Windy City’s citizens, it came as a pleasant surprise as every mayor before her has swept this expensive problem under the rug. In total, there are approximately 400,000 lead pipes still currently installed in the city, and around 80% residential homes are equipped with them which means that anytime the toxic metal could be released into drinking water. So when it comes to fixing the problem, in her inaugural speech, mayor Lightfoot proposed a plan to replace all lead pipes in the city. But what’s the catch? The program’s total cost comes to 8.5 billion dollars which the city council does not have, and with the current reinstallation rate of 800 pipes a year, Chicago’s residents won’t all get lead-free water until the mid-26th century.

How did the problem get so bad?

The story started more than a century ago. Back in the 1850s Chicago was building its first citywide plumbing system, and at the time, the material of choice was lead. Despite lead being more expensive than iron, the plumbers loved it for the durability and easiness to bend. Plus, the toxicity of lead back then was not a matter of public knowledge. It was only when a century has passed that many studies started to reveal that lead exposure, even at low levels, could cause hyperactivity and lower IQ in children and heart attacks at a young age for adults, among other serious health implications. In 1948, one published bibliography listed over 100 articles and reports in English on lead poisoning from drinking water (Rabin, 2008). Due to this, in the 50s – 60s, many cities across America started to ban lead pipes but not Chicago.

Why didn’t Chicago ban the installation of its lead pipes? Well, in Chicago, the issue of the lead in drinking water has suddenly become not only a public health concern but also very much political. At this point, I believe two actors playing leading roles in this story should be introduced. Richard J. Daley and Stephen M. Bailey were two boyhood friends. One would go on to become a powerful Chicago mayor, while the other would grow up to lead the Chicago Plumbers Union. And when the time has come for the mayoral election in the city, many plumbers under Bailey’s control turned out to be devoted democrats, the majority of which turned up to vote. As a result, in 1955 Richard J. Daley, a Democratic candidate, got elected. Shortly after he imposed a rule for installing lead pipes everywhere across the city. The only thing that stopped Chicago from laying down 100% lead pipes was when the federal government banned their further installation across the country in 1986.

Reflections from the UPE perspective

When it comes to the discipline of UPE, water is the most popular and well-studied flow, as it is an exceptional primary area of study for a metaphor for urban metabolism to be applied to. Urban water flows are confined within certain ecosystems in close proximity, unlike globalized product commodities, providing a precise selection of hydrological systems for urban ecologists to study and more easily identify (and quantify) the flow origins (Newell, 2015). Furthermore, as Gandy (2004: 373) states ‘water implies a series of connectivities between the body and the city, between social and bio-physical systems, between the evolution of water networks and capital flows, and between the visible and invisible dimensions to urban space’. At the same time, water is also a rigid designation of social power, either strengthening urban cohesion or generating novel forms of political conflict.

Indeed, from the case study of Chicago’s lead-contaminated waters, when money and power was valued more than public health, we saw the implications of certain political decisions that profited some wealthy actors and a limited social group (in this case plumbers) but negatively affected the others. But in what ways did it affect them? What social groups were affected the most? And what is the situation in Chicago now?

This will be explored in detail in my next blog…


Gandy, M. (2004) ‘Rethinking urban metabolism: water, space and the modern city’, City, 8(3), 363-379.

Newell, J. P., & Cousins, J. J. (2015) ‘The boundaries of urban metabolism: Towards a political–industrial ecology,’ Progress in Human Geography, 39(6), 702-728.

Rabin, R. (2008) ‘The lead industry and lead water pipes “A Modest Campaign”,’ American journal of public health, 98(9), 1584-1592.

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