Few changes planned

Government still not doing much to fight lead, asthma


Matthew Tripodi


A resolution to fund a better tracking system for asthma in Cook County will be introduced this month to the county’s Board of Commissioners.

And, in January, Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) will launch a campaign to educate African Americans on asthma and lead poisoning by targeting Chicago area churches, schools and community organizations.

These actions from public officials—and little else—follow last month’s joint investigative project by Chicago Parent and The Chicago Reporter.

The stories show that local public health officials have known for years that the Chicago area is the national epicenter for asthma and that Chicago has the nation’s highest number of children with lead poisoning. Despite that, government has done little to combat asthma, children are not being tested for lead and there is not enough money to clean up lead-poisoned homes. The money that is available is caught in a bureaucratic logjam that keeps it from getting to the families that need it.  

Neither the Chicago Department of Public Health nor any of the public health departments in the six collar counties have asthma programs.

The state of Illinois has a plan that it developed three years ago but has yet to enact. The investigation also found that none of the government health agencies follow federal health guidelines that require them to educate the public, communicate with other health agencies and collect data. 

No discussion of the findings Most of the officials contacted would not comment directly on the investigation’s findings or explain government’s inaction. Instead, they chose to highlight legislation they have sponsored. 

Mayor Richard M. Daley declined to comment despite three weeks of calls. His spokesperson, Jodi Kawada, pointed to efforts being made by the Chicago Department of Public Health in areas such as training and outreach—all information documented in the articles.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich was asked why the state health department has not enacted its asthma plan and why none of the $304 million of tobacco settlement money received last year or the $305 million the state will receive in 2005 has been earmarked for asthma. Blagojevich’s spokesperson Gerardo Cardenas chose to focus on a new $4 million federal grant going to the state’s Department of Public Health to reduce and remove lead-based paint hazards from low-income housing.

State Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) said in a statement released by his U.S. Senate campaign office: “As head of the Illinois Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and the parent of a young daughter with asthma, I am fully aware of the serious problem of asthma facing the city of Chicago, its surrounding counties and the state of Illinois.”

Obama continued, saying he “would encourage state and local officials to quickly and effectively implement Illinois’ existing asthma plan.” He did not say how.

He went on: “I support the efforts currently being made by Dr. John Wilhelm, the city’s public health commissioner, to add additional staff within the year to work towards compiling data on chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes and obesity.”

Wilhelm, commissioner since 2000, said in the October articles that he is aware asthma rates remain high in poor and black communities, but wanted more study before committing the department to additional work in those areas. He said he planned to add a staff person next year to compile data and get “a handle on the picture in Chicago” of chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes and obesity. “Why did this take me three years to get to this?” Wilhelm said. “There’s just been so much other equally important work to do.”

Direct action Lead poisoning is preventable and asthma is treatable, yet hundreds of children are sick and some have died as a result of these conditions, according to the stories. Both conditions hit the African-American and Hispanic communities in disproportionately higher numbers.

“It’s disastrous,” Davis says about the impact asthma has had within black communities.

Davis says his campaign will get the public “engaged, educated and into facilities that can help them” by promoting testing for lead and asthma.

The county resolution promised by County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago) will ask the board to fund a biannual overview of asthma cases by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geography and age. “This is an epidemic of alarming proportions,” Maldonado says.

“I hope the city of Chicago does the same thing,” says Maldonado. Every government body needs to address these issues, he says.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in 2003 that public health officials collect that data as a way to better target funding for asthma education, prevention and treatment.

Board President John Stroger plans to support the initiative and almost any other initiative that supports asthmatic patients, according to spokesperson John Gibson. Stroger’s son, Hans, died in 1982 from an asthma attack. Still, the Cook County Department of Public Health has no asthma program.

It doesn’t take much “I don’t see a big outlay of money for what we need,” Davis says.

Some money earmarked to fight asthma and lead is just waiting to be used. State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) sponsored a law that took effect in August to use a portion of the more than $304 million the state received in 2004 from the tobacco settlement to fund a statewide asthma plan. None has been spent on asthma.

On the issue of lead, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) says he may introduce an ordinance to get the county to begin spending money that has been allocated for lead cleanup. County officials have said they are moving slowly to ensure the money will be spent appropriately.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) this summer put Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson on notice that he needs to focus on Chicago’s lead problem, according to Joe Shoemaker, Durbin’s press secretary.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) says, “We can and must do more.” She says asthma requires a three-pronged approach—research, public education about the symptoms and treatments, and universal health care to guarantee asthmatics have access to all the medical care that they need.

“In government, we take on new initiatives when there is serious pressure,” says Maldonado. “We are not doing enough to address these [asthma and lead] problems.”  

Matthew Tripodi is a writer living in Chicago.


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