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.