Chicago CROSSING DISCIPLINES
The Hidden Danger of Lead Poisoning
Lead poisoning first made headlines in the 1960s. Lead-based paint was found to be leaving children sick, in comas, and, in some cases, dead. Newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times ran front page stories reporting on real-life tragedies of those in the city.
Today, lead poisoning has found its way back into the news cycle—starting with the 2016 State of Emergency declared over the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to recent reports from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) on lead-contaminated soil in East Chicago.
The conversation around lead is a complicated one. It’s not just about the health impact on children and adults; it’s about politics, state budgets, personal budgets, insurance companies, rights to privacy, and Chicago’s underserved communities.
Since 1999, faculty, staff, and students at Loyola University Chicago have been working to address the most common causes of lead poisoning in the city and state: lead paint.
“It’s not like a traditional research project at a university,” said Katherine Kaufka Walts, director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children (CHRC) at the School of Law. “It’s organizing collectively on an issue across not only different disciplines but also different systems, so you’re working with the public health system, water systems, buildings, faculty, students, staff, community-based organizations, and advocacy organizations.
“That’s not easy to do, but that’s actually happening here.”
Just a few years after the Civitas ChildLaw Center launched, a local group, Children and Youth 2000, was folding, and its leaders asked the center’s Policy Institute to take ownership of one of its task forces. Working to address lead poisoning, the small collective had come up with a series of guidelines and wanted help getting state legislators onboard.
“We very rapidly realized that the task force was a wonderfully diverse group of realtors, property-owners, tenant organizers, health officials at different levels of government, health advocates, legal advocates, and some parents,” said Anita Weinberg, the Curt and Linda Rodin Clinical Professor of Law and Social Justice and director of the ChildLaw Policy Institute. “They had all come together to come up with guidelines on how to create safe homes.”
The state was in the middle of a budget crisis, so finding support to address a health concern not on the top of representatives’ or their constituents’ minds wasn’t easy. With help from a state representative though, they were able to start the Illinois Lead Safe Housing Advisory Council , spearheaded by the Policy Institute. While Weinberg hoped to pass more comprehensive legislation, the board allowed stakeholders from across the issue to make recommendations to the state’s General Assembly.
They came together with a list of points they wanted addressed, not all of them easily doable, but there was one specific focus, a particular culprit, they wanted to address: windows.
Lead with consequences
What qualifies as lead poisoning has changed over 60 years. The impact of poisoning has hit certain populations harder: children of color, children from low-income families, and children up to three years old—however, it’s the buildings themselves that put children at risk.
“In ‘78, all paint after that date had to be lead free,” said Amy Luke, professor of Public Health Sciences. “In the Chicago area, there are very old buildings with, in many cases, not a lot of new upkeep, and certainly, in a lot of the older suburbs, the housing stock is very old.”
One 2002 study found that children can absorb up to 50 percent of lead they have digested. Adults absorb only 10 percent. Originally children identified with 60 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood stream were considered poisoned, but that number has slowly gone down. Ten years ago, 10 micrograms per deciliter was acceptable, and then in 2012, the CDC dropped it to five.
While research has found that there is no safe amount of lead to have in the body, receiving a blood testis not mandatory for all children. In Illinois, only those who live in high risk areas, such as anywhere in the city of Chicago, are required to be tested regularly—starting at 6 or 9 months through 6 years old.
Lead can have a more substantial impact on children with developing minds: slowing development, harming their ability to pay attention as well as their speech and hearing comprehension, increasing behavioral problems and learning disabilities, and causing damage to the brain and nervous system. The effects of lead poisoning are not reversible .
Children struggling with those difficulties can have a larger impact on a community and a city.
“Our kids are being impacted by lead poisoning,” Weinberg said. “If you are impacted by it, it’s going to affect your ability to learn. It impacts your behavior. The two together impact your future, including whether or not you finish school. If you have challenges learning, you’re less likely to stay engaged in school. If you don’t stay engaged in school, you’re more likely to end up in the justice system.”