"Teddy's lead level is 12," my doctor said.
"Twelve?" I said, pressing my cell phone to my ear, hoping that
I'd misunderstood him.
"Twelve," he repeated.
I felt my heart jump into my throat and tears began to stream
down my face. For years, I'd written about lead poisoning for
newspapers around the city. So why couldn't I keep my child from
A blood lead level of 12 is more than twice the five micrograms
per deciliter level that the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention considers problematic, and two points above what's
widely considered poisoned. No level of lead is considered safe,
and even low levels can cause learning disabilities, attention
problems and cognitive delays.
I'd first stumbled on lead poisoning when working as a reporter
on Chicago's housing beat. A housing activist I interviewed showed
me a shocking map of the city's South and West sides, speckled with
dots indicating children who had been lead poisoned.
"Lead poisoning? Isn't that what happens when you eat paint
chips?" I asked. "I thought that was over with years ago."
But lead still is a significant problem, particularly in
Chicago. Our city is one of the highest in the nation for lead
poisoning, due to our old housing and the high use of lead paint to
prevent weathering during winter.
Lead is most commonly ingested as an invisible dust on household
surfaces like floors and windowsills. When young children crawl and
climb around their houses and then put their hands in their mouth
or eat with their hands, they can be unknowingly ingesting high
amounts of lead. Just a sugar packet worth of lead dust spread over
an area the size of a football field is enough to poison a
When my husband and I looked for a new apartment, I made sure to
find a place with new windows-a common place where chipping and
peeling paint creates lead dust from surface friction. I even
tested the cracking and peeling paint on the porch, which was lead
So when the doctor told me that Teddy's lead level was so high,
I was completely confused. I had checked. I had tested. I knew what
to look for. How could this be happening?
The paint on our porch stairs contained the lead.
Little did I know, Teddy was ingesting lead as he learned to
climb up and down the stairs, and every time I walked into the
house, I was tracking in lead dust.
The doctors tell us that it's very unlikely Teddy will have any
permanent damage or problems from the lead. We're beefing up his
diet with extra vitamins and minerals to help his body excrete the
lead. We caught it early, and he had a relatively short exposure
time, so although his lead level was high, he should be OK.
The kids who have more serious problems are those for whom
exposure is prolonged-several years or more-or who already are
facing challenges like poverty, a poor diet, too little stimulation
or failing schools. Those problems compounded make lead just
another challenge that many of our city's children are facing.
I had Teddy tested because I knew the dangers of lead. I urge
you to do the same. Although doctors are supposed to routinely test
for lead, many, even those in the city, think testing is a remnant
of a bygone era.
If you do find lead in your home, hire a state-certified lead
abatement contractor to do the work. Most work requires someone who
really knows what they're doing. Home renovation is one of the ways
that kids are often exposed to lead. All that sawing and sanding
kicks up lead dust that may have been previously sealed off.
Unlike me, many parents who find out their kid is lead poisoned
can't drop everything and spend money on expensive vitamins,
organic foods and doctors visits. For families living in poverty,
lead poisoning may seem like a distant threat compared to the
violence in their neighborhood or the real dilemma of how to put
dinner on the table.
Those of us with time and resources need to advocate to keep
lead in the public eye. Talk to your friends and neighbors. Welcome
someone from the local health department to your next moms group or
neighborhood health fair.
For those of us in Chicago, we need to demand our leaders pay
attention. An ordinance has been drafted by the Metropolitan
Tenants Organization that would require all apartments in the city
to be inspected when leased to a new tenant to catch lead hazards
and require landlords to abate. If a law like this were currently
in place, Teddy would not be lead poisoned. Currently, not a single
alderman has signed on to pass this law.
Lead poisoning is a problem we can solve within a generation.
That's not something you can say about most of the problems facing
our kids today. If my kid was exposed to lead, there are many more
out there, many of whom may never get tested.
We don't need lead in our homes, in our kids' bodies and brains.
Together, with the help of our city leaders, we can get the lead
out once and for all.
Megan Cottrell is a Chicago mom and writer.
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