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.”

Getting involved

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 test is 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.”

The clear solution

It doesn’t take much for a child to be exposed to a dangerous amount of lead. Paint dust or small flakes can be consumed when a child puts their hands in their mouth after just crawling on the floor or playing with their toys—which is why Weinberg and the state advisory board pushed taking action on windows, specifically in older homes. The friction from opening and closing them can increase the amount of paint coming off of the frame.

The government advisory board was able to pass Illinois’s first prevention-focused bill, but they also wanted to focus on replacing windows. Eventually, they were able to pass additional legislation that secured enough money for a pilot program in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood and farther downstate in Peoria, Illinois. With $5 million dollars, they were able to replace windows and make other improvements in nearly 500 units between the two cities.

Other projects, like having Chicago hardware stores offer brochures and posters on safe lead practices, were difficult to enforce—while others like a statewide initiative to have day cares begin the year by providing information about lead poisoning and its effects have continued to be successful.

Today, the ChildLaw Center is working with the Legal Council for Health Justice to have children who are poisoned receive access to early intervention services. For children under three with certain disabilities, having access to early intervention services can address issues that may or may not show up years later in a school setting.

“If they have an elevated blood level, the risk is that they may end up exhibiting delays in the future, so let’s start helping parents understand what needs to be done with their children now to try to mitigate that delay,” Weinberg said. “What we do know about lead poisoning is that not all kids end up being harmed. It has to do with a lot of different things, but we also know to some extent stimulating a child, reading to them, engaging them, and keeping their brain moving and developing can really be helpful. So, that’s the idea of early intervention.”

A complex problem

The Policy Institute has partnered with other groups on campus to work on this issue, including the CHRC, Institute of Environmental Sustainability, Center for Urban Research and Learning, and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. One of the biggest collaborations has been addressing lead paint in buildings before a child is poisoned. Currently state and city laws are reactive, only testing homes or entire apartment buildings after children have tested positive.

“We have a lot more we need to do and I think this idea of proactive housing inspections is critical,” Weinberg said. “It does not make sense to wait until a child is harmed by lead before we do anything about it.”

Starting a program where inspectors are sent to homes likely to have lead paint is costly, but safely removing it can be a challenge on state, city, or personal budgets.

“One of my lessons learned was it’s not that all property owners are slumlords, it’s that a lot of them really can’t afford it or didn’t understand the problems,” Weinberg said.

Landlords may abandon a building rather than take on the costs of remodeling it completely. However, there are reasons why tenants would resist proactive inspections. In today’s political climate, those who are undocumented might feel uneasy about letting a government official into their homes. Tenants may also have additional people living with them, people whose names are not on the lease.

And then, homeowners, themselves, also face problems from a proactive program. In Maywood, Illinois, where Luke lives, most residents own their properties, many of which date back to the 1800s. After meeting with a realtor who rehabs abandoned and foreclosed homes, she learned that mandatory lead testing can further depress an already troubled market, where 25 percent of homes have gone into foreclosure following the recession a decade ago.

“Maintaining our screening, maintaining vigilance, and maintaining these remediation processes are critically important—with the sensitivity to minimizing potential negative impact on people’s personal lives,” Luke said. “It’s a good focus for an interdisciplinary approach. If we can figure out how to eliminate that without ruining people’s livelihoods and lives then we should really work toward that.”

As lead poisoning continues making headlines around the country and in Chicago, many in the Loyola community are continuing the change they’ve been working on for years.

“The initiative is moving slowly and carefully, but in the right direction” said Kaufka Walts, “because of the nature of collaboration–working with different stakeholders takes time and effort. I’m really biased, but I think it’s exciting that it’s happening here at Loyola.”