Renovation can bring out the lead

Work on old houses can be risky if you don't know the dangers of lead


Sarah Karp


In Hilary Godwin's large office at Northwestern University's Technical Building, pictures of her round toddler lean against science text books. A spunky-looking woman with curly hair and blue eyes, she tries to explain in everyday English her work on lead.

But she is most animated when describing when the issue hit home-literally.

Godwin, a chemistry professor who studies lead, says because she's familiar with the risks, she pushed her doctor to give her son a blood lead screening at 9 months. Otherwise, she believes the doctor would have waited to screen Jake until he went to preschool. Since Godwin lives in a part of Evanston deemed as high risk for lead poisoning, it is legally required that he be tested routinely-how routinely is not defined.

Experts say it is crucial to catch lead poisoning early. The younger the child, the more damage lead poisoning can do; if the source of the lead is not determined and removed early on, then the poisoning will continue.

Anita Weinberg, director of the ChildLaw Policy Institute at Loyola University, says that once a child's learning is impaired it is too late. Although steps can be taken to lessen the effects, lead damage cannot be reversed.

To Godwin's surprise, Jake's lead level was 12-slightly higher than what doctors consider safe. Jake was exposed to paint dust left around the home and in the soil after the renovation of the family's 1920s Colonial house, completed before Jake was born nearly three years ago.

Renovation can be a risk Godwin says her experience shows that children from middle-and-upper class families are not immune to lead poisoning, even though it is most prevalent among poor children living in deteriorating homes. In fact, the No. 1 risk factor for lead exposure is the age of the home where a child lives. Some studies have shown children with the highest blood-lead levels were poisoned after their homes were renovated.

"You always hear horror stories about children poisoned after renovation," says Weinberg.

Outside of Cook County, the average year homes were built was 1971, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is before the law was passed banning the use of lead in paint.

Godwin points out that many in her neighborhood and in other wealthy suburbs don't get their children tested and doctors might not push for it, thinking there is not much risk. In the suburbs outside of Chicago, 6 percent of children under 6 years old got screened for lead in 2002, according to data from the Illinois Public Health Department.

"If you think about it, people on the North Shore probably can come up with the money to fix the problem if they have one, so it is sad if the only reason they don't, is that they don't know about it," Godwin says.

Godwin's experience also shows that having a decent income and living in a suburb not overwhelmed by the lead issue means the problem can be dealt with efficiently. However, getting rid of lead is costly and it can be a major burden for families with good incomes.

Godwin says no medical treatment is required for children with low levels. But Godwin scheduled another appointment to get Jake another blood test. In the mean time, she went home and started trying to find the source of the lead. Once Evanston lead inspectors came out to her house and discovered the sources, Godwin took action.

"I made the painters come out there the next day and clean up," she says. "And I went crazy cleaning everything. I had a sign at my door telling people to take off their shoes to keep lead out of Jake."

A couple of weeks later, Jake went back to the doctor for another test. This time his blood lead level was 20.

"I was so frustrated," Godwin says. "As a parent you know you want to give your child every advantage. And here I knew about this problem, I studied this and I couldn't protect my child."

Who gets screened? Illinois requires regular blood lead screening be done only on children living in high-risk ZIP codes, a designation determined by the age of the housing, the number of poor families and the prevalence of children previously found to have elevated blood lead levels.

Parents of children in low-risk ZIP codes are supposed to be asked by their pediatricians a series of questions-the assessment-designed to find out whether the child might have been exposed. If the parent answers yes to even one of the questions, a blood lead screen or test is supposed to be done.

But not all children in high-risk ZIP codes get regular blood lead tests and a small percentage of those in low-risk ZIP codes ever have their lead levels tested, shows an analysis of Illinois Department of Public Health data by Chicago Parent and The Chicago Reporter.

DuPage and McHenry have no high-risk ZIP codes, while suburban Cook County has 15. Of the suburban children who were tested in 2002-the latest available data-3 percent had blood lead levels 10 and above.

Cheryl Wycoff, the administrator of the state's childhood lead poisoning prevention program, says in her estimation about a quarter of all children in the state should be tested. She knows this is not happening. But she says she does not have the staff to pinpoint specific areas where less testing is done compared to what should be done. Nor do they have the resources to hold doctors and local health officials accountable.

There is a space on school physical forms that asks doctors to report the results of a lead assessment or screening. Yet Wycoff says currently the law is ambiguous about whether school officials can exclude children from school without the assessment or the screening, in the same way officials can for lack of immunizations.

School officials say they mostly rely on doctors to deal with the lead issue.

"It is really up to the doctors," says Ellen Wolff, head of school nurses at Naperville Unit School District 203. "If a child is slow in acquisition of knowledge, then we talk to the parents about whether lead could be a risk factor."

Godwin lives in a high-risk ZIP code. Still, many doctors of children in high-risk ZIP codes often won't do the blood test until asked on school physical forms for either preschool or elementary school.

But advocates say this uneven approach creates the possibility that some children will never be diagnosed or will be diagnosed after the damage is done.

Helen Binns, a pediatrician at Children's Memorial Hospital who specializes in treating children with lead, did a study a couple years ago on how well the assessment questionnaire in Illinois worked. She found the questionnaire captured about 75 percent of the children in low-risk ZIP codes with high lead levels. This means the assessment misses a quarter of the children. "Hopefully, you won't miss your highest ones," she says.

On top of that, Binns and other experts say they are sure that some doctors don't bother with an assessment. "There are so many issues to address at a pediatrician's visit sometimes things get left out," Binns says. 

Weinberg of the ChildLaw Policy Institute says advocates would like schools to be more diligent in making sure children are screened. She and others also would like to see hardware stores take more responsibility in making sure people know about lead and are cognizant of it when renovating. The Cook County Department of Health has started a public awareness campaign with hardware stores. But representatives for Home Depot and Menards, two large home improvement chain stories, say they have pamphlets, but do not routinely give out information unless someone asks for it.

Doing the clean up Once Godwin found out her home had hazards, she tried to figure out the best way to deal with it. To completely rid her home of lead or abate it, she was told it would cost $60,000.

Instead, she and her husband decided to mitigate. Mitigation or making sure that the lead is contained and unreachable by children, is now the most common way to deal with lead. For the contaminated soil, she put plastic sheeting around her house. For the windows, she had lead-certified painters strip and repaint the windowsills and put plastic runners around them. Finally, she had an intensive clean up.

Even without abatement, the process was expensive. She estimates she spent about $6,000, including a couple of hundred dollars to have her house certified by a lead inspector. 

Being a professional and a mother herself, she says she knows that the task of raising a young child can be overwhelming and tiring. Environmental issues, she says, can seem abstract.

But she stresses lead poisoning can be fixed, especially if you have the money. The last blood lead screening Jake had, his lead level was 2.8, which is the average from her area.


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