Flint, water quality and the duty to identify danger before it becomes a crisis

We don’t mean for you to be alarmed by the results of our reporting on the safety of our water in the suburbs. But it seems pretty clear you ought to be concerned.

Whenever disaster or tragedy strikes somewhere in the country, it is natural to ask, “Could it happen here?” Often, we at the Daily Herald feel a responsibility to explore and answer that question, and the situation in Flint, Michigan, is a case in point. While the circumstances that led to the water crisis there are specific to Flint, they raise the specter of a problem that could happen anywhere — and, importantly, they show the catastrophe that results — in terms of public health, cost and quality of life — when a serious problem is discovered too late.

In a two-part series this week, our watchdog editor Jake Griffin entered another installment in an ongoing project we hope can help citizens and community leaders make sure that doesn’t happen here. In previous accounts, he’s provided a detailed picture of how water is tested for safety in the suburbs, and he’s reported such arresting statistics as that testing found lead in 70 percent of 172 suburban drinking water systems, more than 8 percent of them at dangerous levels. And he’s shown how ineffective, sometimes vague, communications strategies can leave residents in a community unaware of risks they may face. This week, he showed, among other things, how some schools have acted to identify and address potential lead contamination — and others have all but ignored it.

That finding led our editorial board to support legislation that has stalled in Springfield that would require schools to test for lead contamination in their drinking water and fix the problems they find. But just as important as — perhaps even more important than — adding our voice to calls for legal action is our duty to make you aware of what we find. If you’re a parent or student in Crystal Lake District 155, you may take comfort in knowing your schools tested their water and then acted to eliminate the problems they found. If you’re in Des Plaines Elementary District 62 or Lake Park High School District 108 or Libertyville High School District 128 or any of at least 28 other suburban school systems that have not performed lead testing, you might not feel so reassured. Whatever the case in your school or community, we feel a duty to make you aware so you can respond accordingly.

Perhaps that means calling your lawmaker to push for increased testing. Maybe it means talking to your school administrators or school board members to get assurances about water safety. Maybe it involves merely watching your school newsletters and websites for updates.

Whatever your response, it’s important that we make you aware of the circumstances involving a health issue so fundamental as the safety of your drinking water. We don’t want to alarm you or make wild and unfounded comparisons to a town suffering from a certifiable but isolated disaster. But we do want to keep you informed while there’s still time to ensure no such disaster occurs here.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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