Patricia Robinson thought her 2-year-old son’s obsession with driving his toy cars in the window sill of their Englewood home was harmless.
Until a blood draw at a routine check-up found that he had elevated levels of lead in his blood.
Her son’s pediatrician told her that the dust and chipped paint in the window sill likely caused the lead levels in his blood to rise to 21 percent—more than double the acceptable level.
“I started to panic when the doctor told me he would likely be impaired,” Robinson said. “I had no idea that it wasn’t safe for him to play there. I found out about lead poisoning after it was too late.”
Robinson’s son is one of the 6,4000 children aged 6 years and younger with lead poisoning out of the 2.5 million children in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
But Robinson’s son is a part of a minority in the Englewood community that gets tested for lead.
Although the Food and Drug Administration says all children should be tested for lead between the ages of 9 months and 2 years-old, out of the 11,339 children in Englewood, six years and under, only 40 percent were screened for lead poisoning in 2008, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. Of those tested, 567 children were found to have elevated lead blood levels.
The Center for Disease Control has labeled every zip code in Chicago a high risk area for lead, but the area of Englewood and West Englewood have some of the highest levels of lead in the nation from old housing stock, much of which has been decimated by demolition and now lays toxic in the soil.
Despite the high levels of the lead in the community, the Chicago Department of Public Health announced last year that, due to budget cuts, they could no longer afford to provide testing in Englewood area schools.
“We are in a crisis here,” said Jean Carter-Hill, executive director and founder of the Imagine Englewood If organization. “This is yet another factor working against our children.”
Last month, Imagine Englewood If began a six-week series of free Lead Awareness and Prevention workshops for families of lead-poisoned children. The workshops mark the first phase of a parent-driven initiative to increase screenings and treatment for children of the Greater Englewood community.
“There is not near enough awareness, and now no testing,” said Carter-Hill. “All we know to do is to go door to door and educate the parents in our community.”
Marcella Rankins, lead coordinator for Imagine Englewood If, goes to schools in the community on report card pick-up days to talk to parents about lead testing and prevention.
The Chicago resident used to call the Chicago Department of Public Health to set up lead testing at the school after speaking with concerned parents, but now that testing has been halted, she worries that parents won’t get their children to the clinics to be tested for an illness that’s seemingly invisible.
“Because lead poisoning isn’t a sickness you can see, parents often dismiss it as their kids being hard-headed or having a bad attitude,” said Rankins, a mother of five. “But just one test would give parents their answer. This could change our community, which is known to have a high crime rate and kids with aggressive behavior.”
Lead-a neurotoxin- can harm a child’s brain, slow development and cause learning and behavior problems, according to pediatrician Dr. Howard Lee.
Lee, who has been practicing medicine for 47 years, and lobbying state government for stricter lead prevention laws for the past 10 years, said that although the acceptable amount of lead levels have changed over the years from 60 down now to 10, that the harmful effects can be caused by even small amounts of lead.
“Lead is not acceptable at any level. Lead-poisoned children can’t learn and become violent and can’t control their behavior,” Lee said. “The problem we have now is finding a government that will address this.”
Lee said that not one of the 77 communities in Chicago test more than 40 percent of their children, leading him to question what the true levels of lead actually are in Chicago.
“We don’t really know the full scope if less than half of our kids are the only ones being tested,” Lee said.
The Chicago Department of Public Health said that the number of lead-poisoned children is declining and that they hope to begin testing in schools again.
“We’ve seen numbers of kids testing positive for lead poisoning go down dramatically over the past decade,” said Cortland Lohfs, medical director of environmental health for the Chicago Department of Public Health. “And at this time we are working on reestablishing the capacity to screen at schools.”
Declining lead levels could be a result of a federal and state programs that provide aid for lead abatement, such as the Clear-Win program, an amendment to the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act that reimburses building owners that replace windows tainted with lead.
But the preventive programs are not a reason to stop testing, said Mary Burns, member of Lead Safe Illinois, and the community projects director for the Lead Safe Housing Initiative at Loyola University.
“It all starts with a lead test,” Burns said. “We are trying to move away from reacting and move to prevention.”
Burns said that once inspectors get a report of lead poisoning, that they move quickly and give property owners 30 days to make repairs.
Soon after Patricia Robinson’s son began treatment for lead poisoning, their home was rehabbed as well.
Robinson said the Chicago Department of Public Health came into her home, knocked down the walls, replaced the windows and left her with a cabinet full of Spic and Span.
Now, seven years later, Robinson’s son’s lead levels have come down, but he still feels the effects in the form of a learning disability.
“I think kids should get tested earlier and shouldn’t be able to come to school without a lead test,” Robinson said. “Kids are walking around saying why am I different? We see a lot of kids like that out here.”