Slipping through the cracks
Too many children are at risk for lead poisoning in low income neighborhoods
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
By Sarah Karp
Driving up to the apartment, Chicago lead inspector Delfin Diaz can tell from the outside the building is in poor condition. He points out the Irving Park neighborhood is gentrifying and many of the other homes are spiffed up and have new windows. But the windows on this mustard-colored brick building, which was built in 1920, are covered with a film and their edges are thick with layers of paint.
A child who lives in the apartment was tested at a local clinic, found to have a high lead level and the law requires that city inspectors try to find out how the child was exposed to lead. The building's door is propped open with a brick. When Diaz knocks on the apartment door, a short Mexican woman tells him, in Spanish and in no uncertain terms, the child did not get lead poisoning from the apartment. He nods and tells her he understands her family is frightened that the discovery of lead will upset their landlord and therefore their stability. But he needs to check it out and politely pushes his way inside.
The apartment smells of cleaning spray. The living room's bare wood floors are spotless and the furniture is covered in plastic. The walls are decorated with posters of roses in plastic gold-colored frames. A young woman comes out of a bedroom carrying a chubby boy, about 18 months old, and two steps behind her is a 3-year-old.
The young woman is the mother of the toddler whose blood lead level is slightly elevated. She carries a folded copy of the report from the clinic and shows it to Diaz.
The toddler immediately goes to an open front window. Outside it is raining and the boy watches the big raindrops hit the ground. "That is the ideal scenario for how he could have been poisoned," Diaz says. "Eighty percent of the problems are old windows and old porches," he said.
Diaz discovers that the lead level on the windowsills is extremely high.
Rates higher here Despite progress over the past decade, lead poisoning remains one of the top environmental health concerns for families in Chicago, such as the one whose apartment is being inspected by Diaz. It is a much more serious a problem here than anywhere else in the country.
In seven of Chicago's 77 neighborhoods, more than 20 percent of the children screened had elevated lead levels in 2002, according to Chicago Department of Public Health data. The city's rate is 11 percent, the state's is 6 percent and the country's is 2.2 percent.
The most affected areas in Chicago were all poor and on the South and West sides of the city.
And the number might be even higher. In late August, a federal judge ruled that Illinois' Medicaid program violates federal law by not giving 600,000 children the proper preventative screenings, including lead tests. Since children participating in Medicaid come from poor families who often live in dilapidated buildings, they are most at risk for lead poisoning.
Community advocates say low-income families continue to feel as though the discovery of lead in their homes puts them in an unsavory position. High levels of lead can cause physical symptoms such as nausea, coma or even death. But even small amounts of lead in a child's system can cause irreversible brain damage, slowing their ability to learn and causing them to be hyperactive.
Parents, the advocates say, do not want their children to be harmed or have their potential dimmed. But the cost of fixing the problem can be daunting.
Homeowners often can't afford it, and renters sometimes have trouble getting their landlords to do the work. Community activists say the presence of lead in a home is an especially difficult problem for families of undocumented immigrants. The shortage of affordable housing makes it difficult to find reasonably priced apartments and their undocumented status leaves them wary of any type of intervention by authorities. This is underscored when Diaz inspects the apartment.
When he enters the kitchen, the older woman turns from a big pot of rice on the stove and starts at him again. She insists there is no way the little boy got the lead from the home. "There are five families living here," she says, "and we need this place to live."
Improvements In the 20 years since Diaz began his work as a lead inspector for the city of Chicago, he says the lead situation has gotten markedly better for a number of reasons.
A concerted effort by public health officials and community organizations have made parents better educated about the damage lead can do, causing them to take it more seriously, he says. Gentrification in some older neighborhoods has resulted in the renovation of old, lead-infected structures. In addition, the city has eased its rule that that property owners no longer have to completely remove the lead, a process that can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Pushing for mitigation, with an average cost of $10,000, rather than abatement, has made more property owners fix violations.
"We try to tell them that all they need is elbow grease and plastic," says Anthony Amato, the city's supervisor of lead inspectors. "What we say now is, 'Let's manage lead by getting rid of the hazards.' Completely removing lead was cost prohibitive. The landlords couldn't afford to do it, so they couldn't get it done."
Two-thirds of the 2,280 property owners cited for lead in 2003 complied within 30 days or as soon as the weather permitted, according to city officials. Those with small problems can attend a class given by the city that explains how to safely do the work themselves. Those with more significant problems must hire licensed lead contractors.
But 570 landlords failed to comply and were referred to an administrative hearing or court. Anne Evens, director of the city's lead prevention program, says that the process of taking a landlord to court can take more than a year.
When it's your child Raveese Gladney, whose daughter Jessica Chess is now 5, says the time between the discovery of a child with an elevated blood lead level and the city forcing a landlord to fix the problems can be excruciating for parents.
When Jessica was 3, she was tested for lead as required to get into preschool. Two days later, the doctor's office called to tell Gladney her daughter's lead level was 54.5, well above the 10 threshold.
"I was so upset," she says. "I didn't know where to go."
Gladney says she understood the dangers of lead and knew the damage it could cause. To bring down the lead levels, her daughter took medication three times a day. The medication helps to take the lead out of children's bodies, but can't reverse the brain damage already done.
Soon after Gladney's daughter was diagnosed, the city's lead inspector came out to examine the apartment.
The inspector found the windows filled with lead paint and instructed Gladney how to wipe down the windowsills. At the same time, the city sent a letter to the owner of the building, Mercedes Reyes.
As far as Gladney knows, Reyes didn't respond to the letter until the city threatened more than a year later to take her to court. Only then did Reyes hire a painter to scrape off the lead paint around the windows and repaint.
Between the time Gladney discovered the lead paint and the time Reyes removed it, she kept the house "spic and span" and had Jessica, her only child, wash her hands regularly.
Then, when her lease expired, Gladney got a shock. Reyes told her to move. "I am sure it is because of the lead," Gladney says.
Gladney wanted to stay in Rogers Park near her family, but the neighborhood is slowly gentrifying and affordable apartments are increasingly hard to find. Gladney eventually decided to move in with an aunt down the block. This time, though, she refused to move in until a city inspector pronounced the apartment free of hazards.
Gladney says her daughter seems to be doing fine. But she is worried about the future. She can't afford to send her daughter to private school, so she desperately wants her to be able to test into a magnet school where Gladney thinks the girl will get a better education than at her neighborhood school.
Gladney says she's praying Jessica's elevated lead levels will not hinder her chances. "I still like to think that she has the same potential," Gladney says. "I hope I am right."