A Shakespearean actress from West Philadelphia, represented by a major national law firm, has filed a class-action suit claiming the city put her family - and tens of thousands of other Philadelphians - at a "significantly greater risk" for lead poisoning.
Eleni Delopoulos, 37, who lives with her 2-year-old son and husband, filed suit Thursday in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
The suit contends the city has been aware of high levels of lead in the tap water for years and failed to warn residents of contamination. It also alleges that the city rigged the results of its water tests to produce "a woefully inaccurate picture" of lead contamination in Philadelphia.
Mike Dunn, spokesman for Mayor Kenney, said the city was aware of the suit.
"At this time we have no comment," Dunn said.
Delopoulos' attorney, Steve W. Berman of Seattle's Hagens Berman firm, served as lead counsel in the $206 billion class-action settlement against Big Tobacco.
Delopoulos contacted the law firm after hearing it had filed a similar complaint against Chicago in February, said Elizabeth Fegan, a partner at Hagens Berman involved in both suits.
Delopoulos recently moved to Philadelphia from New York City. She has been a featured performer with Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater and joined the staff of Wolf Performing Arts Center in Bryn Mawr as a teaching artist.
Fegan said the city recently dug up the street in front of Delopoulos' 48th Street house to replace the water mains, but did not warn residents.
Delopoulos' toddler was playing in a pile of dirt when a city worker warned her the soil was contaminated with lead.
"That seems to have prompted the call" to the law firm, Fegan said.
There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children exposed to lead can suffer irreversible damage, including developmental delays and learning difficulties.
Delopoulos' complaint demands that the city pay for a citywide medical monitoring program that would provide blood tests to detect the presence of lead.
It also demands the city pay to replace all lead service pipes running into individual houses from city water mains with nontoxic materials.
City Water Department officials have said they believe that homeowners, not the water utility, bear the responsibility for replacing lead service lines that run from their property curb line into their homes. The department is creating a Homeowners Emergency Loan program, under which the city would help provide zero-interest loans, to be paid back over five years, to hire a city-approved certified plumber to replace lead lines.
Fegan said the cost of creating a monitoring program would be minimal. The expense of replacing pipes would be steep. Madison, Wis., which has one-sixth the population of Philadelphia, spent more than a decade and nearly $20 million to replace all its lead service lines.
Fegan said the law firm would ask the city for all internal guidelines about how it conducts water tests and notes taken during any internal discussions about the quality of Philadelphia water.
"We guess they'll be less than stellar compared to what the city told residents," she said.
City testing procedures, including how homes are chosen and whether testing protocols produce artificially low lead levels, have been the subject of numerous media reports since revelations about lead in Flint, Mich., water.
City officials have defended their methods as complying with federal regulations and have repeatedly said the water is safe. But because service lines may contain lead, they advise running taps for a few minutes before drinking, and not consuming hot water from the tap.