BELMONT CRAGIN — Lead paint was banned in homes in 1978, but the hazard persists in some older homes — and continues to affect some youth.
Alainah Long searched the city for an apartment that would fit her five kids and wound up finding a home in the 2100 block of North LaPorte Avenue. But after about a year of living there, her infant son, Jedi Ruzicka, was diagnosed with autism, mixed receptive-expressive language disorder and pica, an eating disorder, according to a medical assessment Long provided to Block Club.
Jedi’s lead levels were previously tested at 76.4 micrograms per deciliter — more than 15 times the level considered dangerous, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health and documents reviewed from the agency. Jedi had to spend days in the ICU, Long said.
The landlord is making fixes, a health department spokesperson said. But Long said it’s too little, too late.
“I just really want Jedi’s story to get light shined on it,” Long said. “Lead poisoning is not talked about enough, and it’s still here.”
Tenants and health advocates are calling for proactive inspections and stronger enforcement on homeowners to prevent kids from getting sick in the first place.
A proposed ordinance calls for required inspections of all rental units at least once every five years.
“Right now, there’s a lack of inspections and you usually don’t know where lead is before it’s too late,” John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, said. “The health department comes out only after a child is sick. There’s no reason for kids to be getting poisoned when we know what the cause is.”
After Jedi’s diagnosis, health department inspectors went to the North Laporte Avenue apartment and found lead hazards in 28 areas of the home, including peeling paint chips on doorways and windowsills, according to documents provided by the health agency.
The homeowner declined to comment for this story.
Job ‘Not Done’ To Prevent Lead Poisoning
In the mid-’90s, 70 percent of Chicago children had lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher, according to health department data. Now, it’s less than 2 percent.
The city’s efforts to prevent lead poisoning is “a story of success, but let me be clear: The work is not done,” Dr. Candice Robinson, medical director at the health department, said in an April livestream with Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.
In the video, Arwady credited the drop to “50 years of work by public health,” including providing city services like nurse case management, home inspections when problems arise and a grant program to make repairs.
A community engagement and billboard campaign is encouraging families to test their children for lead at 1, 2 and 3 years old, Arwady said.
But peeling lead paint in older homes remains the top cause of child lead poisoning in Chicago, Arwady said.
“We’re not done. There’s still too many children in Chicago who are lead poisoned,” Arwady said. “But this is remarkable progress.”
Rules and awareness around lead paint have shifted significantly, and public health programs have offered boosts, like a pilot in 2014 to replace thousands of windows, a common source of peeling lead paint, said Anita Weinberg, a clinical law professor at Loyola University.
But lead paint problems prevail particularly in low-income neighborhoods with older homes that are poorly maintained and operated by small-time property owners, who may plead ignorance or not know about lead hazards in their units, Weinberg said.
Landlords are only required to give tenants a pamphlet about potential lead hazards in older homes, Weinberg said. When someone is poisoned, health inspectors go to the unit in question and typically do not inspect the entire building, Weinberg said.
“When there’s not much housing stock, families don’t have a choice. … We could be doing more to hold property owners accountable,” Weinberg said. “The way the laws work, only when a child is identified with lead poisoning [is there] a responsibility to stop it.”
The highest prevalence of lead poisoning is in predominately Black communities on the South and West sides, where there is the greatest amount of pre-’40s rental housing, said health department spokesperson Andy Buchanan.
Weinberg said enforcing lead paint restrictions more actively would be a large undertaking that would require “leveraging many more dollars.”
Bartlett said he hopes a pilot program for the home inspections proposal — focused around several wards — will pass “hopefully within the next year” under a more progressive city council that’s been supportive of housing as a human right. The ordinance is being championed by Ald. Rosanna Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd).
“The intent is to not go through each unit with a fine-tooth comb, but to have a generalized inspection to catch serious issues,” Bartlett said. “We need to invest more in making existing housing safe.”
But Arwady previously pushed back against the proposed ordinance, telling WTTW’s Paris Schultz it would require her department to hire 600 more health inspectors, and the city should instead take more of a targeted, proactive approach.
‘We’re Not Sure What The Long-Term Damage Is’
Long said she has not been able to work since Jedi’s setbacks, which require him to receive specialized care.
“This all has just been really difficult for us. … Jedi still has lead poisoning, and we’re not sure what the long-term damage is,” Long said. “For now, I really just want Jedi’s story to help at least one family from getting lead poisoning, educating them so they can help their children.”
Dr. Helen Binns, director of lead evaluation at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said many families have fallen behind getting their kids lead screenings during the pandemic.
Blood lead testing dropped by a third in 2020 and was 22 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels in 2021, Buchanan said.
Only 11 percent of Chicago children are tested for lead at all three recommended ages, Buchanan said.
Lead poisoning does not cause development disabilities, but it can be a “contributing factor” that exacerbate them in children, Binns said. It lowers IQ levels, increases risk for ADHD and slows other cognitive development, Binns said.
Families in Chicago should check their windows and porches, “which can be particularly bad sources,” Binns said.
Weinberg said families should clean surfaces with wet wipes, look out for chipping or peeling paint, be mindful of children crawling near window walls and keep watch over what they are putting in their mouth.
Families can call 311 to request a preventative inspection, “which they may or may not get, depending on how much time they have,” Binns said. Lead testing kits can also be bought at hardware stores, Binns said.
State and city health agencies “have been working [for] years to push the envelope on this issue” but are still short of “moving to more of a preventive approach,” Binns said.
“Lead can certainly be hidden,” Binns said. “We hope regular care can help, but in some cases we don’t get to kids when we should.”
Long said her family moved out of the unit on North LaPorte Avenue. Watching Jedi spend days in the ICU was not easy, Long said.
“He’s really loving, open arms, he’ll hug anyone and everyone. … The force is strong with this one,” Long said. “He doesn’t deserve this.”
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