Cleaning up the soil and your home is the best way to protect children by Carrie Watsonphoto courtesy of Chicago Department of Public Health A child is tested for lead by the Chicago Department of Public Health. The Department provides the service free of charge.
Parents like to think home is a nurturing and safe place for their children, a place where your children are protected. That's what Zakia Shabazz thought. But in 1996, she discovered she was wrong when her son, Zaki, not yet 2, was tested and found to have a high level of lead poisoning.
"Zaki's now in the fourth grade and school is a real challenge for him sometimes," says Shabazz, director of United Parents Against Lead, headquartered in Richmond, Va. "He struggles with some things as far as long-term memory, so he may learn something today and then tomorrow he can't recall it."
Lead is a hidden danger that can be life threatening to children. And it can creep into your home from many places, even children's jewelry bought in gumball machines-a problem since 1981.
The Chicago Sun-Times recently tested metal trinkets from Chicago stores and found 75 percent of them had lead levels dangerous to children if swallowed or chewed. In response, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) sent a letter to Consumer Products Safety Commission Chairman Hal Stratton urging him to "take immediate action to eliminate the threat of lead in children's toys."
Schakowsky says: "This is an entirely preventable risk. It is our responsibility to eliminate the threat of lead whether it exists in paint, in small trinkets and toys sold in vending machines or in any other place."
The trinkets are not a primary cause of lead poisoning. However, "it's an unnecessary additional contribution," says Dr. Helen Binns, director of the Lead Evaluation Clinic at Children's Memorial Hospital.
But there is a large threat of lead poisoning from new products imported from around the world-children's furniture, babies' rattles, toys, ceramic pots, imported candy, even some older sidewalk chalk. Anne Evens, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, says "Lead is still pervasively used around the world." Parents should be careful of any imported product.
But the major sources of exposure among children are still lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust.
A majority of children with lead poisoning have no obvious symptoms, until the lead level becomes extremely high, says Binns. The symptoms for severe levels may include irritability, anemia, headaches and weight loss.
Binns says a child exposed to lead in the first two or three years of life may accomplish preschool tasks. But as the child ages and tasks become more difficult, the effects of lead exposure can include learning disabilities or behavioral problems including aggression and hyperactivity.
But even at low levels lead damages a developing brain.
"Once you test a child and find that they are lead poisoned, then it's too late," says Daniel Swartz, who recently stepped down after four years as executive director of the Children's Environmental Health Network in Washington, D.C. "On some level you've already let that kid down."
Banned but not gone Lead-based paint was banned in housing in 1978, but remains in many homes. U.S. Census Bureau figures show nearly 69 percent of Chicago's housing stock was built before 1959, when lead was common in paint. In some suburbs, such as Evanston, Oak Park and Cicero, more than 70 percent of houses were built before 1959.
Lead paint was often used around windows and doors because it was more durable. So, each time a window or door is opened or closed, a little bit of paint abrades and a fine, imperceptible lead-filled dust can float into the air. A child need only touch the dust and put a finger in his mouth to be exposed. When the dust is inhaled or paint flakes are ingested, the health effects can be severe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says blood level counts should not exceed 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. In 2000, more than 20,000 Illinois children had levels greater than 10, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health-one in every six children tested in Chicago had elevated levels of 10 or more. Kids 12 months or younger who has 6-9 micrograms should be treated, Evens says. "No level of lead is safe."
The blood of Shabazz's son, Zaki, measured 30 micrograms of lead.
Prevention is best Lead poisoning crosses all economic, racial and ethnic lines as well as city and suburban boundaries. Very often families rehabbing homes will find children's lead levels climb.
But lead poisoning can be prevented. Prevention includes testing for lead content in paint, soil and water. Couples who are planning to have children should have their home tested. If you find lead, you may qualify for government money to remove it.
Before buying a new home, families with babies and young children should test-and walk away from the deal if lead is found.
The state's public health Web site lists all licensed lead assessors and inspectors in the state who test homes. Parents can check their home's age by address using Chicago or Cook County Tax Assessment records on the Center for Neighborhood Technology's Web site, www.newschicago.org.
Also, think about the soil. Chicago is likely to have high levels of lead in the dirt because exterior paint peels and falls from buildings. Another source is past use of lead in gasoline.
Since kids will dig, make sure you have clean sand around the home to satisfy them. Make children wash their hands when they come in from outside and before eating.
As for testing your child, a blood lead test is required for all children under 6 years of age in Chicago because of the high risk of exposure. Children throughout Illinois must be tested before entering preschool.
According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, children should be tested annually between age 6 months to 6 years. Contact your health care provider to schedule a test or call your local government to see if an area health clinics offers the test.
After Zaki was tested and diagnosed, Shabazz moved into a different home, but only after it passed a lead inspection. "I like to give parents hope," Shabazz says. "Last year Zaki made the honor roll, and that was a really big achievement for us."
Resources Chicago Department of Public Health Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention (312) 747-LEAD www.cityofchicago.org/Health/Lead.html Illinois Department of Public Health Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention (217) 782-0403 www.idph.state.il.us/home.htm National Lead Information Center Hotline (800) 424-LEAD www.epa.gov/lead
CDC Childhood Lead Prevention (888) 232-6789 ext. 2 www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/lead.htm Children's Memorial Hospital Lead Evaluation Clinic (773) 327-9127 www.chicagolead.org Alliance for Healthy Homes (202) 543-1147 www.afhh.org
Carrie Watson is a journalism graduate student who writes for the Medill News Service. Chicago Parent staff contributed to this article.