A common group of chemicals used in all kinds of products is being
associated with increased obesity. Lester Graham reports this study
is the latest to link the chemicals to health problems:
A common group of chemicals used in all kinds of products is being
associated with increased obesity. Lester Graham reports this study
is the latest to link the chemicals to health problems:
Phthalates are found in cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, lubricants, paints,
pesticides, plastics and more. A Harvard study had linked phthalates
to lower testosterone levels in men and lower sperm counts.
Testosterone also helps keep men lean.
Dr. Richard Stahlhut and his team at the University of Rochester looked
at the data and the Harvard study and took it to the next step:
“If what they found is correct, then what we should find perhaps is
that higher phthalate levels are associated with more abdominal obesity
and insulin resistance.”
And that’s what they found. The authors of the study published online
by Environmental Health Perspectives hypothesize that phthalates
might be directly linked to more belly fat and pre-diabetes in men.
The higher the phthalate level found in a person, the greater the
chance of abdominal obesity.
For the Environment Report, this is Lester Graham.
One of the abandoned houses that a group of artists has covered in "Tiggerific Orange" paint to get the attention of city officials in Detroit. (Photo courtesy of the artists... who wish to remain anonymous)
Football fans are gearing up for the bright lights and glitz of this year’s Superbowl in Detroit. One event that won’t make the halftime show is a tour of the city’s dilapidated and abandoned buildings. They’re everywhere. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jennifer Guerra reports on a group of artists sneaking around late at night hoping to draw attention to the urban decay:
Football fans are gearing up for the bright lights and glitz of this year’s Superbowl in Detroit.
One event that won’t make the halftime show is a tour of the city’s dilapidated and abandoned
buildings. They’re everywhere. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jennifer Guerra reports on
a group of artists sneaking around late at night hoping to draw attention to the urban decay:
When you drive around Detroit, you can’t help but notice the abandoned buildings. Houses with
caved in roofs and charred out insides line the streets. I met up with Christian, an artist who’s
been living in Detroit for the past 15 years. He says when people from the suburbs drive into
Detroit… they don’t see a city so much as a burnt out chasm, and that’s not the kind of symbol
he wants associated with his hometown.
“I just think that the symbol of a burnt out abandoned house is a horrible symbol to grow up
around for the kids in the city. Some people have to look at beaches and mountains, these people
have to live with this sort of symbol of defeat. You almost feel like a social responsibility to do
something about it, you know.”
So Christian, along with his friends Jacques, Greg and Mike grabbed some smocks, a bunch
of rollers, and gallons of orange paint, but not just any orange paint… this is the shockingly
bright, stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of orange paint that you can’t help but notice… it’s called
Tiggerific Orange. And with that, the artists headed out in the middle of the night to paint their
first abandoned house. It should be noted here that what the guys are doing – trespassing and
vandalizing property – is illegal. So they’ve asked that their last names not be used…
Around 3 a.m. – while painting their first house – Christian noticed that they had some
company… the police:
“Well I was outside and they came by and he said ‘what are you doing?’ And I said we’re painting
the house. And he said ‘why?’ And I said because it needs a paint job, and he said ‘Have at it
bro!’… and he drove away… and it was like all right, cool!”
From there the guys went on to paint eight more houses around the area. They’re very choosy
about which houses to paint. The structures have to be residential and clearly abandoned. Also,
they have to be in a high traffic area.
(sound of cars driving by)
Mike – one of the painters – took me to a side street above two freeways. There, the artists had
recently slathered Tiggerific Orange paint on six abandoned houses clustered together.
“You wanna go closer? Just watch your step…”
From pretty much every angle along the freeways you can see all six houses. Each has fallen
victim to arson. Tires, wood planks and garbage cover what was once somebody’s front yard.
Even some of the debris is splashed with orange paint.
“There’s part of the floor that is fallen and is now perpendicular to the ground…so we painted
the underside of that floor…”
Through the windows you can see dirty, old-looking stuffed animals litter the floor. Mike says he
sees that kind of stuff left behind all the time.
“Families used to live in these buildings and now the buildings are not worth enough to tear it
down, the property’s not worth enough to bulldoze, and that’s not a judgment on the city or anything. I wish
it was worth someone’s time to bulldoze. If I had the resources to do that I guess I would, but all
I can do is spend a couple hundred bucks on paint.”
Mike would need a lot more than a couple hundred bucks to bulldoze those houses. Amru Meah
– the Director of Detroit’s Building and Safety Engineering Department – estimates the average
demolition cost for a residential building to be somewhere around 5500 dollars.
“No city could actually effectively demolish every building that became an eyesore or in bad
shape because you could actually have a situation where you gotta whole bunch of buildings… so
you’d run around and try to demolish two, three, four thousand buildings a year. That’s not
But the Tiggerific Orange paint is working. Of the nine houses painted so far, two have been torn
down, and according to Jacques – one of the guys with the orange paint – putting pressure on
city officials and creating awareness are huge motivators.
“People will drive by the houses on the highways and they’ll kind of catch a glimpse of it, but
they’re on the highway so they just drive right by. So the next time they go down the highway
they might remember, ‘oh my god, I want to look for that orange house!’ And so as they’re
looking for the orange house, they’re looking for all the other houses in turn. What that does is
that that raises sort of an awareness of what’s going on, and as we’ve already seen as two houses
have been destroyed: awareness brings action.”
But, as Jacques points out, four guys can only paint so many houses on their own:
“One of the beautiful things about the project is that it’s such a simple move. All we’re doing is
taking a roller, taking a paintbrush and painting the façade of a house orange, and it’s already
had so many ramifications. So, you know actually we would encourage anyone out there who feels the desire
to do it to just go pick up a roller and paint a house.”
But keep in mind… just because the police let the orange painters off the hook the first time…
doesn’t mean they’ll be so lucky in the future.
In 1978, the U.S. banned lead-based paint because kids
exposed to it developed learning disabilities. But lead paint remains in some older homes, and rules to deal with it have been in limbo for 13 years. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee reports why that might change soon:
In 1978, the U.S. banned lead-based paint because kids exposed to it developed learning
disabilities, but lead paint remains in some older homes, and rules to deal with it have
been in limbo for thirteen years. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee
reports why that might change soon:
Home rehab contractors sometimes dislodge old lead-based paint. The debris and dust
threaten kids. So, Congress asked the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate rehab
work. That was in 1992, but there are still no rules.
Recently, though, Illinois Senator Barack Obama challenged the EPA. He said he’d
block a key EPA staff appointment until the agency proposed regulations. Now, the
EPA’s promised a draft by year’s end, and that’s welcome news to children’s advocates, but some of them like Anita Weinberg of
Lead-Safe Illinois are wary.
“We want to make sure that they are substantive and that they’re going to have an impact.
So it’s great to have regs being drafted, but we don’t yet know what the content is going to be.”
It’s unclear whether Congress will approve any lead paint rules at all. They might
hesitate, because new regulations could increase home repair costs.
The National Institutes of Health has put some new things on the list of potentially cancer-causing agents, one of which is grilled meat. (Photo by Kenn Kiser)
The federal government is adding 17 substances
to its list of cancer-causing agents. Some of them
are causing concern within the medical profession.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
The federal government is adding 17 substances to its list of cancer-causing agents. Some of them are causing concern within the medical profession. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
For the first time, the National Insitute of Environmental Health Sciences has listed viruses in its Report on Carcinogens. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C as well as some viruses that cause sexually transmitted diseases have been added as cancer-causing. Other substances new to the list are some compounds found in grilled meats, a number of chemicals found in textile dyes, paints and inks, and x-rays. Dr. Christopher Portier is the agency’s Director of Environmental Toxicology Program.
“The medical profession is a little concerned about us listing x-rays. They’re afraid people will stop getting medically necessary x-rays because of the concern for cancer.”
But Portier says the best bet is to discuss those concerns with your doctor. For the record, the government now recoganizes 246 substances as “known” or “reasonably anticipated” to be cancer-causing agents.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
Wind turbines can be both a blessing for farmers, as a source of extra income... and annoying to the neighbors. (Photo by Lester Graham)
Wind farms of huge turbines are springing up along coastlines,
windy ridges and blustery farmland. Most of us see them from a distance.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman recently visited some
of them up close… and has the first of two reports on wind energy:
Wind farms of huge turbines are springing up along coast lines, windy ridges and
farmland. Most of us see them from a distance. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Lehman recently visited some of them up close… and has the first of two reports on
If you can imagine the sight… there are 63 wind turbines scattered across the
their huge blades sweeping around, capturing energy from the wind. Each turbine is
high. You can see them from miles around. But it isn’t until you stand directly
80-foot long blades as they rotate in the wind that you begin to appreciate their size…
(sound of wind from underneath turbine)
“This is probably a typical day. They’re probably producing at about 30 percent of
what they are
rated at, and probably on average, for a year, this is what you’d expect.”
Christopher Moore is Director of Development for Navitas Energy. The Minnesota- based
company opened the Mendota Hills Wind Farm in northern Illinois just over a year ago.
Q: “What are some of the highest levels that you’ve reached?”
“Each turbine is capable of producing 800 kw, and there are times when we’ve had the
working at about maximum.”
Moore says the Mendota Hills Wind Farm produces enough electricity to power about 15-
thousand homes per year. It’s the first wind farm in the state of Illinois.
Brian Lammers is a Project Manager for Navitas Energy. He says the location is
ideal since it’s
windy here nearly all year long…
“The wind here is more robust in the fall, winter and spring. So we have more
those months than we do during June, July, August.”
Unfortunately, the summer months are the months that most often experience peak
electricity. Because of that, and because it takes so many windmills to generate
lower amounts of
power, it’s unlikely that current wind energy will completely replace fossil fuel
(sound of turbines)
On the flat prairies of Illinois, the giant turbines are the tallest structures for
miles around. You
begin to wonder about things like lightning strikes…
“We might have experienced one or two last year. The turbines are protected from
entire wind farm is grounded, so if there is a strike typically it will just be
grounded down to the
ground grid. There’s typically no long-term damage associated with a lightning
strike. But as you
can imagine, they’re the tallest structures around so there are periodic lightning
Q “What about a tornado? This is tornado country…what would happen if one came
“I don’t know. These turbines are built to withstand everything but a direct strike
from a tornado,
so I think the same thing would happen to a wind turbine that would happen to any
structure if they were struck by a tornado. You’d probably have some significant
(fade up sound inside turbine)
Inside the turbine, there’s a distinct hum as the blades whirl away at the top of
the hollow shaft.
It’s about ten feet across at the base, and a metal ladder allows anyone brave
enough to climb all
the way to the top.
Despite the hum of the turbine’s blades up close, the sound fades away just a few
dozen feet from
the tower. But noise isn’t much of a concern for this wind farm. It’s in the
middle of a soybean
field and there are no neighbors nearby.
Noise is just one of the aesthetic concerns for neighbors of wind farms. Appearance
The Mendota Hills turbines are coated with a special paint that appears white in
But when the sun’s not out, the turbines appear grey, and seem to blend in with the
Dennis Cradduck has 19 of the turbines on his corn and soybean farm. He says the
hasn’t been a problem. Of course, he’s getting paid by Navitas for allowing the
turbines on his
land. But he says the wind farm has led to an unexpected benefit: getting to meet
across the country who pull off the highway for a closer look…
“We get people almost on a daily basis that drive by on the interstate and see them,
and stop and
want to look at them, and they’re amazed at them, and most—about 99 percent of them
positive comments. In fact, one fellow from North Carolina stopped the other day
and said ‘I wish
we’d build more of these around the country because we need renewable energy.'”
The prospect of more renewable energy is appealing to most environmentalists. But
that wind farms can be deadly to birds. A study by the National Wind Coordinating
found that wind turbines kill an average of two birds per year.
Another concern is that windmills disrupt the scenery. But the only view around
here is farmland
as far as the eye can see. And on this brisk day, it isn’t just corn and soybeans
being harvested: it’s
the power of wind.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.
Heavy cleanup crews from the Genesee County Land Bank use chain saws, wood chippers, tractors and brute force to move piles of debris on the lot of an abandoned house on the north side of Flint, Michigan. (Photo by Chris McCarus)
Up until three years ago, rundown homes and abandoned lots were multiplying in the city. With the creation of the Land Bank, some people believe the city's image is beginning to turn around for the better. (Photo by Chris McCarus)
A next door neighbor to the abandoned house visits the cleanup crew. She has had to bear the eyesore and health risk next door for several years. The Land Bank currently has custody of about 2,800 properties like this in and around Flint. (Photo by Chris McCarus)
One community is fighting its problems of abandoned lands and unpaid property taxes. Those problems have led to a decaying inner city and increased suburban sprawl. The new tool the community is using is called a “land bank.” It uses a unique approach to try to fix up properties that otherwise often would be left to deteriorate. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:
One community is fighting its problems of abandoned lands and unpaid property taxes.
They’ve led to a decaying inner city and increased suburban sprawl. The new tool the
community is using is called a “land bank.” It uses a unique approach to try to fix up
properties that otherwise often would be left to deteriorate. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:
(sound of work crews operating wood chipper)
Cleanup crews are sending downed branches through a wood chipper on a vacant lot.
They’re also removing tires, used diapers, car seats, sinks, old clothes and dead animal carcasses.
The workers are from the Genesee County Land Bank in Flint, Michigan. They’re trying to
make abandoned property useful again. Dan Kildee is the Genesee County Treasurer and the brains
behind the land bank. He thinks this new approach can recover unpaid property tax money and help
improve the Flint Metro area.
“The community gets to make a judgment on what we think we should do with this land. We get
to take a deep breath.”
Empty lots and rundown homes have been multiplying for a generation. That’s left the city of
Flint in a terrible economic state. But the land bank is beginning to change things.
Until just three years ago, Michigan was like most other states. No one had come up with
a solution. The state would auction off a city’s tax liens. Then conflict between the tax
lien buyer and the property owner could go on for up to seven years. In the meantime,
properties were left to neglect and often vandalized.
Under this new program, the treasurer’s office forecloses on a property and hands it over
to the land bank, which acts as the property manager. The land bank might then demolish
a house; it might throw out the owner and let a tenant buy it; or it might auction it off
to the highest bidder. A private investor can’t just buy a tax lien. He has to buy the
property along with it and take care of it.
The land bank is financed in two main ways: through fees on back taxes and through sales
of the few nicer homes or buildings the land bank acquires that bring in relatively big
profits. Treasurer Dan Kildee says it makes sense to take that revenue to fix up old
properties and sell them to people who deserve them.
“There is no system in the United States that pulls together these tools. Both the
ability to quickly assemble property into single ownership of the county, the tools
to manage it and the financing tools to develop that property.”
The land bank program hopes to change the perception of Flint. As thousands of abandoned
homes, stores and vacant lots become eyesores, people and their money go other places,
usually to build more sprawling suburbs. The perception that people are abandoning the
inner city then speeds up that abandonment. Many people who can afford to leave the city do.
And those who can’t afford to move are left behind.
According to data gathered by the research group Public Sector Consultants, Flint has the
state’s highest unemployment and crime rates and the lowest student test scores.
Art Potter is the land bank’s director. He thinks the downward spiral can be stopped.
When it is, those folks in the central city won’t have to suffer for still living there.
“Even though the City of Flint has lost 70,000 people in the last 30 years, the people who
are still here deserve to have a nice environment to live in. So our immediate goal is to
get control and to clean these properties now.”
Urban planning experts are watching the land bank approach. Michigan State
University’s Rex LaMore says Flint is typical of Midwestern cities whose manufacturing
base has shrunk. Private owners large and small have left unproductive property behind.
As the land bank steps in, LaMore says it’s likely to succeed and become an example that
other municipalities can follow.
“They can begin to maybe envision a city of the 21st century that will be different than
the cities of the 20th century or the 19th century that we see around the United States.
A city that reflects a more livable environment. So its an exciting opportunity. I think
we have the vision; the challenge is can we generate the resources? And the land bank model
does provide some opportunity to do that.”
But the land bank is meeting obstacles. For example, the new mayor of Flint who took over
in July canceled the city’s existing contracts. A conservative businessman, the mayor is
suspicious of the city’s past deals. They included one with the land bank to demolish 57
homes. This has slowed the land bank’s progress. Its officials are disappointed but they’re
still working with the mayor to get the money released.
(sound of kids chatting, then lawn mower starts up)
The weeds grow rampant in a neighborhood with broken up pavement and sometimes
no houses on an entire block. It’s open and in an odd way, peaceful. Like a
century-old farm. It’s as if the land has expelled the people who invaded with their bricks,
steel and concrete.
In the middle of all the vacant lots, Katherine Alymo sees possibilities.
“I’ve bought a number of properties in the auctions from the land bank and also got a side
lot acquisition from them for my house. My driveway wasn’t attached to my house when I
bought it. And it was this huge long process to try to get it from them. But they sold it
to me for a dollar. Finally.”
And since then, she’s hired people to fix the floors, paint walls and mow the lawns.
She’s also finding buyers for her properties who want to invest in the city as she has.
Together, they say they needed some help and the land bank is making that possible.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris McCarus.
A new study indicates that more children might be at risk from the effects of lead in their environment than previously thought. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:
A new study indicates that more children might be at risk from the effects of lead in their
environment than previously estimated. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has
Elevated levels of lead in a child’s bloodstream are known to cause mental development
problems. The question is…how much lead is too much? Today, the danger level is set at 10
micrograms per deciliter of blood. But new research published in the New England Journal of
Medicine shows that levels below ten micrograms might also cause problems. Richard Canfield
is a researcher at Cornell University. He headed up the latest study:
“Instead of finding that as lead levels increase the power of lead to cause
problems increases, which most people would think, we found that most of the
damage seems to be done at the low levels.”
Canfield and his group found that IQ levels in young children dropped even at lead levels below
the current standard. He notes that, on the whole, the problem of lead poisoning in children is
decreasing, but it’s still a major concern.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.
Children are typically exposed to lead in older homes with lead based paint or lead in the home’s
piping system, and by playing in soil next to roadways contaminated by cars that burned leaded
gasoline in the past. To find out more about lead poisoning visit the Center’s for
Disease Control’s website at www.cdc.gov.
Duke Wagatha drives down from northern Michigan each year to sell his Christmas trees. While in Ann Arbor, he and his crew live in this 1951 Vagabond trailer.
It’s that time of year again – parking lots across the country are filled with Christmas trees. Just about one out of every three people who celebrate Christmas buys a live tree. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush spent some time with one tree grower in the height of tree selling season:
It’s that time of year again – parking lots across the country are filled with Christmas trees. Just about one
out of every three people who celebrate Christmas buys a live tree. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Mark Brush spent some time with one tree grower in the height of tree selling season:
(sound of generator, saws, people chatting)
It’s a crisp afternoon at this Christmas tree lot in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That generator you hear is
powering the electric saws. They trim up the base of the tree so it’ll fit your tree stand. The guys’ hands
are blackened with sap and dirt from handling the hundreds of trees that came off of flat-bed trucks. They
take the bundled trees – open them up, and stick them onto stands. They’ve created a makeshift forest in
the middle of this strip mall parking lot. Customers wander through the forest searching for the perfect
Duke Wagatha runs the tree lot. He appears each year from north Michigan to sell his trees:
“We get here the weekend before Thanksgiving. Takes us probably about a week, or
five days to get set up, with the idea of opening the day after Thanksgiving. We like to let folks get one
holiday out of the way and then we start on the next.”
“Hello folks, how may I help you?…” (fade tree lot sound under)
He calls his business ‘Flat-Snoots Trees.’ You couldn’t tell from looking at his face now – but he
calls it ‘Flat-Snoots’ to make light of a broken nose he suffered in high school.
Duke seems to be a hard working free-spirit. His coveralls are all tarnished with pine needles and sap.
And when he moves, you hear ringing from the bells on his hat. He moves between the trees in his
parking lot forest telling his customers jokes and filling their heads with visions of Scotch pine, Fraser
firs, and Blue Spruce.
Margaret Jahnke has been buying trees from Duke for more than six years:
“He just makes it really personable – and there was one year it was really kind of warm and he had his
Hawaiian shirt on and his straw hat, and he was out here partyin’ away! And I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ It’s fun
to come, you know, just to run in, you know, to talk to him. And they’re really helpful!”
While they’re in Ann Arbor, Duke and his crew live in a 1950’s vintage trailer. The trailer’s paint is
faded, but Duke spruces it up for the holidays with wreaths and pine bows. And when you step inside, the
old lamps and rustic furniture make it seem as if you’ve stepped back in time.
(sound of trailer door opening)
“Whooo! It feels better in here doesn’t it?”
(sound of trailer door closing)
The trailer also doubles as his office. Customers pay for their trees in here and on occasion they’ll have a
complimentary nip of what Duke calls his “bad schnapps.” And the kids might be offered coupons for
free hot chocolate.
Duke is from Mesick, a small rural town in northern Michigan. Christmas tree farming is big business
in Michigan. The state is second only to Oregon in the number of acres that are in Christmas tree
Duke, however, calls himself a small-time grower. He’s a carpenter by trade, but his work tends to dry up in the
long winter months:
“It’s not enough to make a living for me and my family year-round, uh, but it’s a good extra source of
income and uh, winters are tough up there, so if you make a little bit of extra money – winters are tough
and expensive – uh, living in the country, you know, like anybody, you got propane bills and all that, and
it’s a little colder up there, so to make a little bit of money going into winter is pretty nice.”
A lot of work went into growing the trees that have now arrived on his lot. Each summer workers plod
through the rows and rows of trees swinging razor sharp machetes. They trim each tree to give them that
classic, symmetrical, Christmas tree shape.
After about ten years, the trees are ready for harvest. They’re cut, they’re run through a baling machine,
and they’re loaded onto trucks and shipped down to the lots.
(sound of tree lot with sound of Duke)
Even though there’s a jovial atmosphere on the lot, there’s also a sense of urgency. After all, Duke only
has a few weeks to sell trees that in many cases have taken more than ten years to grow.
And while selling the trees is an important part of Duke’s income – he gets something else out of it. He
really likes people. And he enjoys making connections with them – whether it’s getting them to laugh, or
just simply helping them buy a tree:
“Sometimes you get some grumpy folks coming in, and it’s usually just because they’re overwhelmed
with shopping, it’s cold out, they didn’t wear their long underwear, or whatever, but we can usually get
them turned around, you know, we have a little fun with them. Like I say, if we have to bring them to the
trailer and have a shot of bad schnapps with ’em – hey, that’s just fine too.”
It’s closing time at the tree lot. The workers are headed for a warmer space. Right now, Duke’s trailer is
filled with his relatives and friends.
(sound of door opening)
“Come on in! This is Duke’s family. It’s warm in here, huh?”
(more rowdy banter)
Duke will continue to sell his trees right up until Christmas Eve. Then he’ll drive home to spend a few
days with his family before he comes back to tear the lot down:
“It’s kind of like the circus coming to town. You build up your tree lot, you almost build like, well I
wouldn’t say a village, but a little spot where there was nothing – just an asphault parking lot. And when you leave – there’s nothing
left – we sweep up and go – so it’s almost like a mirage. Were those guys really here?” (laughter)
And so, they spring to their trucks and drive out of sight, knowing they helped make the season
merry night after night.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.
It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since the United States government banned the use of lead-based paint in homes. Yet, more than 800,000 young children still suffer from lead poisoning. In some parts of the nation, more than one in four children under the age of six have elevated lead levels in their bloodstream. The problem is especially pressing in communities with older housing stock. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Steve Edwards reports:
It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since the United States government banned the use of lead-based
paint in homes. Yet, more than 800-thousand young children still suffer from lead poisoning. In some
parts of the nation, more than one in four children under the age of six have elevated lead levels in their
blood stream. The problem is especially pressing in communities with older housing stock. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Steve Edwards reports:
Elaine Mohammed and her husband recently moved into a new apartment in the up and coming Rogers
Park neighborhood on Chicago’s far north side. It has a nursery for their baby, a study for Elaine to work
on her Ph.D. and a front-row view overlooking Lake Michigan.
The Mohammeds were just settling into their spacious new home when their pediatrician revealed some
alarming news. Their 10-month old son, Zachary, had elevated levels of lead in his blood stream.
“It was just horrifying. I mean, because I immediately thought of the extreme end – you know, that kids
get brain damaged from lead poisoning. And so that was our first worry, you know, is he going to
become brain damaged? Is he going to have problems learning to speak or is it going to affect his
physical development? And that’s an on-going worry because he may have problems once he goes to
school. He may have problems learning to read. He may have problems with attention, um, with behavior
problems, so that’s a big worry. That’s the biggest worry.”
(baby making noises)
Just outside the back door of Elaine’s apartment, Steve Mier, shows us the problem – chipping and
cracking lead-based paint. Steve Mier is the Assistant Program Director of the Children’s’ Lead Poisoning
Division for the Chicago Department of Public Health.
As we walk up the back staircase of Elaine’s building, he points to one of the tell-tale signs of lead paint,
something he calls, alligatoring:
“And what that is, as you can see here, that the lead based paint, or the paint itself, is starting to break up
very uniformly where it looks like its, uh, simply looks like alligator scales on the back of a back – where
the lines go up and down and sometimes across.”
“Ok, we can see inside here. We’re standing on the outside just on the staircase, but if we peak in this
“Ok, here in this window, well, you can see there’s a lot of deteriorated paint. Now when that lead starts
to turn to dust is when it poses a particular hazard to children because the dust, once you open that
window and close it of course, you get gusts of wind that go through and they can blow that lead dust
onto the floor.”
And that’s exactly what has Elaine Mohammed worried.
After learning about Zachary’s lead poisoning, inspectors from the department of public health tested her
home for lead. What they found was a virtual hot zone.
“In this apartment, it’s mainly the window wells, the balcony, all the paint in the kitchen and the rear
bedroom, which would be his bedroom. All that is all lead paint.”
The city of Chicago is notifying her landlord of the problem. Under city ordinance, all building owners
must come up with a plan to fix the building within 15 days of receiving notice from the city. Inspectors
then monitor the clean up plan to ensure it’s done properly and doesn’t stir up even more lead dust. The
city is also urging landlords to conduct yearly inspections of their buildings and to consider replacing
windows where necessary.
In the meantime, Elaine Mohammed’s number one priority is making sure Zachary doesn’t come into
contact with any more lead dust. That means cleaning the apartment constantly:
“And washing his toys all the time, and remembering to take my shoes off the minute I come into the
apartment and, you know, things like that. Wiping the window sills, making sure he doesn’t play in this
According to the city of Chicago’s Department of Public Health, Chicago has the most lead-poisoned
children of any city in the United States. The most recent statistics put the number at more than 55,000.
But the department says the numbers are probably a lot higher. That’s because only one out of three
children in Chicago is tested for lead. These high levels are due mostly to the thousands of old homes and
apartment buildings covered with lead-based paint.
But Chicago is not alone. Cities with aging housing stock like Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee have
high lead poisoning rates.
And states like Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin have rates that exceed the national average as well.
Northwestern University’s Dr. Helen Binns is an expert on childhood lead poisoning. She says the
problem of lead exposure isn’t just an urban one:
You know, there are homes in suburban areas that were the original farmhouse that was there. So, it’s not
city-suburb. It’s “look at your risk within your own environment,” particularly the home in which your
child is growing up. Or the home in which they spend their day care. Or the home that’s the
Doctors are still trying to understand exactly how lead affects humans, but they do know two things for
sure: It takes just a small amount of lead to cause damage, and the effects of lead poisoning are
irreversible. Even slight exposure to lead during those crucial early years of a child’s development can
impede learning and alter behavior. That’s in part because once lead is in a child’s blood stream it’s
difficult to get out.
Again Dr. Helen Binns:
“The time at which it takes to release the lead is very long. The half-life of lead in bone is 20 years. So,
once you’ve released a threshold of concern level in the blood of a young child, they’re gonna be at that
level for a very long time.”
Treatments do exist to help lower those levels.
Good parenting is also a key prescription. Reading, talking, and playing games stimulates a child’s mind
and can offset some of the harmful effects of lead poisoning.
That’s a message Elaine Mohammed has taken to heart.
But it’s cold comfort when you’re spending your days and nights in a lead-ladened apartment.
So why not just move out?
“Because I don’t think – given that, you know, so many buildings are old buildings, that this problem, this
problem…I mean, I didn’t realize that it’s really, really widespread in Chicago. And I don’t know at this
point that moving to another building is going to protect us in anyway. Unless I can move to a very new
building, it may have exactly the same problems.”
So, for now, the solution is to clean, mop, sweep, and clean some more. It’s a round-the-clock war
against lead dust.
But it’s a war Elaine Mohammed vows to win.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Steve Edwards in Chicago.
The city of Chicago recently filed a federal lawsuit against several former manufacturers of lead-based paint. The city wants companies such as Sherwin Williams and Glidden to help pay for the cost of lead abatement.
Graffiti artist Juan Carlos Noria imagines his artwork as a gift to the community. Artwork provided courtesy of JCN at them-art.com
Graffiti has been a part of urban life since ancient times. There’s also a long history of trying to get rid of it. In many North American cities, civic leaders are experimenting with new ways to eradicate graffiti. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, urban artists are determined to keep it alive:
Graffiti has been a part of urban life since ancient times. There’s also a long history of
trying to get rid of it. In many North American cities, civic leaders are experimenting
with new ways to eradicate graffiti. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen
Kelly reports, urban artists are determined to keep it alive:
About twenty artists, most of them men, spread out on either side of a canvas wall set up
in the middle of a parking lot. They wear baggy jeans, baseball caps and gas masks. The
ground is littered with spray paint cans as they splatter color across the canvas.
The artists build on each other’s ideas. Horizontal purple stripes are transformed into an
exotic bird. Pen and ink drawings peek out beneath layers of orange and brown, slowly
disappearing under the paint. This is Ottawa’s first graffiti fest, organized by
local artist Juan Carlos Noria. He arrives by bicycle, wearing splattered jeans and
carrying two backpacks stuffed with spray paint.
“This is our way of giving back to the city true expression and unfortunately I do agree that some of it
is ugly but it’s like a hammer, you know? It’s a tool for building or destroying.”
Noria is a full-time artist who sells oil paintings and sculptures. But his best known work
might be his graffiti. He creates detailed pen and ink drawings on white paper. Then,
late at night, he glues them to downtown buildings.
His drawings depict the plight of humans in the modern world. One shows a man using
one hand to pour coffee into his mouth, as he pounds a hammer with the other.
Another depicts a person surrounded by bubbles representing thought – about money,
heartbreak, and the passage of time.
For Noria, this sort of unexpected art is comforting in a city that prides itself on
“My living room isn’t this clean, you know? And a lot of these Ottawa streets are super
clean. In an alley that is vacant, it’s almost like a mark that a human being has been there
and I think that’s important, you know?”
But to many other people, graffiti is a sign of crime, decay and danger. That’s prompted
Ottawa to join other North American cities in introducing a graffiti management policy.
The plan includes a special phone line to report graffiti and tougher fines for those who
The city estimates it spends about 250 thousand U.S. dollars cleaning up graffiti on city
property every year.
Paul McCann is head of Ottawa’s surface operations office. He says the biggest problem
is tags – initials or names scrawled in marker.
“I’m not talking about the nice graffiti art that a lot of people appreciate but the problem
is the tagging. Some of it is gang related. It’s not in the right place, it is considered
vandalism if you don’t have permission.”
McCann says there’s been a sharp increase in tagging. And it can make residents, and
tourists, feel unsafe. But he draws a distinction between the taggers and the so-called
While graffiti will never be tolerated in places like the parliament buildings, McCann is
looking for areas where graffiti can flourish, such as skateboard parks. It’s a strategy
that’s been used in other cities, including Toronto and Montreal. And it’s something Juan
Carlos Noria is eager to support.
“Graffiti is a movement of the youth. We must embrace it, say it’s not going to go away
so let’s give them spaces to work in and I think that by offering them these spaces, the
older artists will realize these are gifts, so they will in turn speak to the younger artists and
educate them and that’s what it’s all about.”
For Noria, graffiti offers a public venue to vent his frustration about pollution, capitalism,
and the ubiquity of advertising. Not long after the graffiti fest, one of his works
appeared on the wall of an abandoned theatre. It depicts an angel imagining a beautiful
gift as it sends a spray of paint onto the building.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly in Ottawa.