Following the money
Government funds for cleaning up lead aren't getting to where they are needed
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
By Sarah Karp
In many Illinois towns and suburbs, the discovery of a child with lead poisoning means a swift response and plenty of help with cleaning up hazards.
In Chicago, while the city inspectors usually come quickly, getting government money to clean up is difficult, if not impossible, an investigation by Chicago Parent and The Chicago Reporter found.
Recent headlines have pointed to lead as a problem in some imported toys and furniture, but the real problem remains lead in paint. Lead was taken out of paint in 1978, yet in old housing lead-ridden paint remains underneath new coats. Sweet to taste, lead is dangerous. It can cause permanent brain damage and at its worst, even lead to a child's death.
But fixing lead is expensive. It costs an average of $10,000 to clean one apartment, a process that often means replacing windows, scraping off paint and repainting. And there are supposed to be funds available to help, especially people with low incomes. But an examination of the available money and where it is spent shows:
• There is still not enough money. Just in Chicago, it's estimated that 88,000 Chicago units probably have lead in them, which would cost at least $1 billion to fix. But each year, the city has a couple of million dollars to spend on cleaning up the problem.
• Although Chicago has the highest percentage of lead poisoned children in the country, it does not get a proportional amount of money to deal with it. This leaves families in poor city neighborhoods where the problem is concentrated to wait for months for help.
• Cumbersome procedures often mean the money available for clean up is not spent.
While other monies are available for education and screening, Cook County and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are the two major sources of funding for cleaning up lead hazards in Chicago and the suburbs.
But when it comes to cleaning up, Chicago, which has 70 percent of the state's children who tested positive for higher lead levels, doesn't get its share. For example, only 40 percent of $34 million in HUD money that has been spent helping landlords and homeowners in Illinois since 2000 went to Chicago property owners. In addition, although Chicago is home to 93 percent of the lead-poisoned children in Cook County, the city gets only 74 percent of Cook County's lead money.
As with any government breakdown, many reasons are offered.
Experts and lawmakers say much of the problem has to do with an "ask and ye shall receive" approach to funding, where more aggressive municipalities gain a greater share. It is also a result, they say of politics overshadowing public health realities.
HUD and Cook County officials disagree with the contention there is a problem.
"You are making a judgment that a child in a smaller town is not as important as a child in Chicago," says Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman. "Lead is everywhere and just because someone lives in a small town doesn't mean they shouldn't have access to help."
Even if the money was being spent in proportion to lead poisoning cases, it wouldn't solve the problem. There simply isn't enough money available, children's advocates say. And existing funds aren't distributed quickly enough, especially in Cook County.
That means some homes and apartments aren't being fixed and more children are being exposed to lead, says Anita Weinberg, director of Loyola University's ChildLaw Policy Institute, who recently co-chaired a summit to develop a strategic plan for Chicago. "I have a problem with the money just sitting there," she says.
County officials say their application process is complex and that they are taking their time in distributing the funding because they want to make sure it is spent right.
But Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who represents the far northeast end of Chicago and some north suburbs, says he is so fed up with the county holding onto the money that he may introduce an ordinance to force the issue.
"With the county, everything goes as slow as molasses," he says. "This could save a generation of kids and we just aren't doing it and it is driving me crazy."
Local community activists have complained to Suffredin that not one property owner on the Chicago side of his district has received any county money-or federal money, for that matter-for lead control.
Chicago vs. suburbs?
Meanwhile, Evanston, an adjoining suburb with much less of a lead problem, has received enough money over the past two years to clean up the homes of qualified property owners-and do some prevention work, as well.
Evanston doesn't really have a significant lead problem, according to the data. In 2003, 1,092 children were screened for lead and 86 had elevated lead levels. During that time, 13 properties were cleaned up with government money.
Evanston "jumped at the chance" to get the county money, says Jay W. Terry, the director of Evanston's Health and Human Services Department.
"I am never comfortable with Chicago vs. Evanston questions," he says. "Hopefully, it is not either-or. Do I wish there were more funds available so that Chicago would have enough to take care of its problem? Yes. But that is a political question. All I know is that we were given the opportunity to apply and we did."
Meanwhile, in Chicago's North Side Rogers Park neighborhood, tests show 153 children had elevated blood levels in 2002, and not one property owner received any financial help.
Her voice quivering in anger, Monica Dillon, a community health nurse at the Howard Area Community Center in East Rogers Park, says she has seen families destroyed because a child was exposed to lead.
"The [county] could have used this money to really start eradicating lead here and in other Chicago neighborhoods," she says. "I think [the Cook County money] is just being mishandled."
Dillon notes that while gentrification is taking hold, Rogers Park is home to one of the most diverse populations in the city, with many immigrant families struggling financially. About a third of Rogers Park's residents are black, a third white and a third Latino, according to the 2000 Census. The median household income is $32,444, which is below the city's median at $38,625.
Dillon says many of these families feel trapped because they don't have the money to fix the problem-or are renters who can't persuade their landlords to do the work.
And Loyola's Weinberg and Anne Evens, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health's lead program, stress it is not just the disparity in the county funding that troubles them, it also is the way the county has set up the program.
Both served on the advisory council that helped develop the application procedure and say that, throughout the process, they disagreed with certain stipulations. For example, they thought the distribution should be based on need, while county officials wanted to see 50 percent given to Cook County suburbs.
Cook County has only recently gotten into the business of fixing lead hazards.
In 1993, the Illinois General Assembly abolished a more than 100-year-old insurance system-the Torrens system, which set aside money from the sale of each building to pay for any possible title problems after the property sale. That left $35 million in the now defunct Torrens Fund. It took five years before the county decided that only about $7 million was needed for any future claims but the rest could be used. In 1998, the legislature passed a law allowing Cook County to use the money left in the Torrens Fund to clean up lead.
Advocates celebrated the large pot of money. But instead of devoting the entire $28 million to lead, the Cook County Board decided to put half in the county's general fund-a move the law allowed but did not advocate.
In the end, the county was left with about $15 million in the Torrens Fund for lead hazard control. It took until 2001 for Cook County to develop a spending plan. Since it went into effect in 2002, only about a third of the Torrens Fund has been spent to clean up 186 properties, according to Cook County.
Stephen A. Martin Jr., director of the Cook County Public Health Department, who used to run the county's lead program, says the money is being spent quickly but within government guidelines-a community organization or a municipality must submit a 40-page application in behalf of property owners in the area and the process takes two years.
The grant application must list, in each case, the address, the contractor that will do the work, what needs to be done and the time it will take.
Evanston and Oak Park, Martin says, are the only Cook County suburbs with the resources-knowledge about the work, connections with contractors, inspection staffs-to put together an application. This leaves one qualified nonprofit organization, the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, to develop all the information necessary to apply for all the other suburbs.
"CEDA can only do so many homes," Martin says.
Just a small step In about 45 percent of Chicago's neighborhoods, more than 100 children a year are found to have high lead levels. The scope of the problem and the limited amount of money the city gets for lead hazard control leaves officials in a difficult position. They must decide whether to target the most-affected areas, or open the program up to any property owner who qualifies.
Over the past four years, Chicago officials have targeted communities on the South and West sides of the city, which is one of the reasons Rogers Park and much of the North Side of Chicago have been neglected. Realizing that property owners in some communities were being left out, Evens says, this year the targeted areas are being broadened.
But the gap between the need and the problem is still vividly apparent in the targeted areas.
Take West Englewood, Englewood, New City and Auburn Gresham, four adjoining neighborhoods on the Southwest Side. Over the past decade, the city has demolished many abandoned houses in these neighborhoods, leaving vacant lots covered with weeds.
The buildings left standing are a mix of wood-framed and bungalow homes, two- and three-flats and bigger courtyard buildings with multiple units. At a glance, these buildings seem well-kept.
But the houses are old. The paint is peeling, the siding is loose, the cement stairs are cracked. On one afternoon, children are everywhere, riding bikes, throwing basketballs against the steps and hanging off nearby jungle gyms.
And, because of the crumbling housing stock, those children are more likely to have lead poisoning. In 2002, about 22 percent of the children screened in those four neighborhoods had elevated levels of lead in their blood, compared with a rate of 11 percent citywide and 6 percent statewide.
Because of the persistently high rates, the city targeted these neighborhoods. The extra attention resulted in 227 homes being cleaned up with government funds since 1999, according to the Chicago Parent/Chicago Reporter analysis. That means about one home has been cleaned up for every 10 times a child was found with lead poisoning.
Josie Chico, one of two social workers for Children's Home and Aid Society doing lead outreach on the Southwest Side, says, while the targeted money has been helpful, it is "just a small step." The nonprofit agency provides a host of social services to children statewide.
Chico says almost all of the landlords and homeowners she has met are within the income guidelines to receive a lead hazard control grant. And the waiting list is often a year long. Chico talks glowingly of one landlord who qualified but was not able to get a grant because the money ran out. "She went into debt to get some hallway windows fixed," Chico says. "It is just a little thing, but she cared so much that she went into debt. Most don't."
Parents are told to keep their homes as clean as possible while waiting and to make sure the child constantly has a stomach full of nutritious food. Because lead latches on to children's bones in the same way as nutrients such as calcium, experts agree that poisoning is more severe when a child's diet is poor.
This places an undue burden on families already stressed by parenting and poverty, says Deborah Woodside, a program director for the Children's Home and Aid Society, which runs a lead prevention program in six South Side neighborhoods.
"Hearing that your child is lead poisoned is very upsetting and frightening," she says. "Then we start telling them all the things they need to do, and they give up. Good nutritious food is more expensive, and some of these parents don't have the money for it. So what are they supposed to do? They feel like they have no control."
Is it a priority? In many ways, the approach to lead-control funding is similar to many other issues. Lawmakers who represent suburban and rural areas don't want every cent of government funding to go cities, which, because of their high concentrations of people, are bound to have a higher concentration of problems.
To ensure all HUD funding doesn't go to urban areas, need is not a top criterion for federal grants. "The grants are awarded to people with well-developed plans and people who can do the work that they propose to do," says HUD's Sullivan.
Evens says she has advocated to have the funds distributed based more on need, but it is difficult. "I know the Centers for Disease Control tried to take away lead funding for Alaska because there's basically no lead there, but it wasn't easy," she says. "They had to fight to do it."
To the federal government's credit, Chicago has received more money in the past few years; one of HUD's temporary grant programs was based on need.
Illinois, Chicago and Cook County are among the six governments that receive HUD grants directly. Illinois uses its HUD grant to target counties without funding.
U.S. Rep. Jerry F. Costello, a downstate Democrat, says he supported HUD grants for two counties in his district. Both Madison and St. Clair counties, which includes East St. Louis, have low-income areas that otherwise wouldn't be able to do anything about lead.
But he is sympathetic to Chicago's situation. "The bottom line," Costello says, "is that lead has not been a priority [for the Bush Administration or Congress]. Frankly we don't discuss it. We just pass the funding with the rest of the HUD budget. But it is a serious issue and we need to get serious about addressing the problem."
Getting the lead out With the federal and county money barely tackling the lead hazards in the city, local officials and advocates have taken it upon themselves to find other ways to secure resources for property owners.
Chicago puts none of its own money into lead hazard control, but does pay for lead inspectors and supervisors. Evens says most cities do the same, relying on the federal government. Philadelphia, which put $1.5 million into lead hazard control last year, is an exception, she says. But in Chicago, using city money for lead hazard control "is not a viable option, as the city's budget has contracted," Evens says.
After working for about two years, a group of advocates and city officials recently released a strategic plan to eliminate childhood lead poisoning as a public health problem in Chicago by 2010. This mission mirrors one set by HUD for the nation. The first and most important part of the plan is to "leverage dollars to make housing safe."
The plan directs the city to creatively examine all types of federal and state funding. Rhode Island, for example, received a waiver to charge Medicaid for lead hazard control.
But Weinberg, who authored the plan, says she is most excited about the prospect of finding new money. The plan suggests investigating the New Markets Tax Credit, a new federal program intended to increase investments in low-income property, and taxing the sale of paint, as California currently does.
The other idea is making the paint companies help pay for the clean up.
There is evidence that the paint companies knew early on that lead poised a threat, especially to children. Studies and journal articles dating back to the 1910s chronicle the disturbing effects of lead poisoning. But as criticism increased, the lead industry organized an aggressive campaign to reassure the public that lead paint was not dangerous.
Chicago filed a lawsuit in September 2002 alleging that the companies had created a "public nuisance." A judge dismissed the case in October 2003, calling it an "effort to wrongly shift the responsibility for addressing potential hazards from property owners to a few selected former manufacturers."
Bonnie Campbell, an attorney acting as spokesperson for Dan K Webb's firm-the attorneys representing the paint companies in the Chicago lawsuit-contends her clients acted responsibly. She says the companies sponsored research about the effects of lead on children and then voluntarily adopted standards that called for lead removal from paint in 1955, before it was forced by law.
Campbell says she thinks cities and states should focus on the proven solutions-getting property owners to clean up deteriorating paint and targeting governmental resources to help them. "The should focus like a laser on the solutions because the lawsuits have never helped one child and they won't be resolved fast," she says. "The lawsuits are a distraction."
But Rosemary Krimbel, senior counsel for the city law department who prepared the lead lawsuit, says it's too difficult and costly for property owners to truly get rid of-or abate-lead.
Most of what is done now and what is remotely affordable in the future is controlling lead as a hazard, which means the lead is still there and could become a problem in the future.
"It doesn't make any sense for taxpayers to bear this burden when paint companies knew at the time lead was dangerous and manufactured it anyway," she says.
"They knew it would hurt people. They knew it would hurt children."
Four quick questions about lead
Q: Where does the lead come from? A: Lead can be found in products such as storage batteries, ceramics and some imported toys, furniture and candies. But the most common way children get poisoned is through old lead-ridden paint left over in homes. The federal government banned the use of lead in household paint in 1978, but in old housing there is often lead paint underneath new coats of paint.
Q: How much lead does it take to harm a child? A: Not much. And damage from lead is irreversible. If dust or chips are ingested or inhaled, even a small amount of lead can harm a child's brain, kidneys and stomach. Super high levels of lead can send children into comas or even kill them. Lower levels can cause children to be nauseous, lethargic or hyper. It can also slow a child's development and cause learning and behavior problems. It's very important to catch the problem early.
Q: How do they test for lead? A: Blood tests measure the amount of lead in children's blood by micrograms per deciliter. Children with a blood lead level above 10 micrograms have been shown to have learning disabilities and a drop in their IQ. A reading above 45 requires medication to reduce the level more quickly. However, it does not reverse the damage.
Q: Who is at most risk? A: Children under 6, whose bodies absorb lead easily. There are ZIP codes in the Chicago area considered at high risk-including all of the city of Chicago. Children in well-to-do families may be at risk if they are living in older housing stock that is being renovated. But for a number of reasons, exposure to lead is worse for children from low-income families, says Helen Binns, of Children's Memorial Hospital. These children often live in older and deteriorating houses. And because lead melds onto bones like calcium, its effects are worse in children with poor diets. Studies show poor children have less nutritious diets, partly because fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods are more expensive than junk food. Also, studies have shown that children who are in stimulating environments can overcome the affects of having been lead poisoned. But low-income families often miss out on good preschools and quality schools. Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chicago Department of Public Health
Abatement vs. mitigation Abatement Definition: It means to completely get rid of the lead. Up to a decade ago it was thought the best way to deal with lead hazards. How it works: Much like asbestos, it requires certified lead-removal technicians, masked and in full body suits, to do near-gut rehabs of homes, stripping walls, replacing windows and sometimes even pipes. Advantage: The lead is gone-completely. Disadvantage: It costs property owners tens of thousands of dollars and government officials, including those in Chicago, decided it was cost prohibitive. Over the last decade, the city and state changed from an abatement to a mitigation policy.
Mitigation Definition: It means to do the work necessary to contain lead hazards. Now the standard practice. How it works: For example, a floorboard with lead paint on it would be replaced if you were abating the lead. But with mitigation, repairs would be made to holes or places where it is chipping. Instead of replacing a window, mitigation would mean painting over the old paint in the proper manner. Advantage: It costs as little as $2,000 or as much as $40,000, but averages $10,000. Also, the city and state no longer require a certified lead contractor be hired to do minor jobs. Property owners can do it themselves by taking the weekly classes offered by the city on safe lead work techniques. Advantage: It's a dramatic improvement in the compliance of property owners with city violations. Also, children who live in mitigated homes are unlikely to suffer more lead poisoning, studies show. Disadvantage: Advocates worry this is a temporary fix. In years to come, the lead issue will linger because it was not eliminated. Sources: Illinois Department of Public Health, Chicago Department of Public Health.
High risk homes High-risk lead ZIP codes in the six-county Chicago area include mostly suburbs that have significant Latino and black populations, and much lower household median incomes. This trend holds true for Chicago. While all of Chicago is considered high-risk, the most severely affected neighborhoods are black and Latino neighborhoods on the West and South sides of the city.
Note: The state designates high-risk ZIP codes by looking at the age of the housing, the number of poor families and the prevalence of children previously found to have elevated blood lead levels.
Sources: The Illinois Department of Public Health; U.S. Census Bureau Graphic by Desktop Edit Shop Inc.