With mounting evidence that lead poisoning results in lower test scores, more children repeating grades, and worse, why has so little been done in Chicago to reverse the damage?
Patricia Robinson recalls a time when she fondly watched her son, Michael, then a toddler, sit in the windowsill of her Englewood home, completely engrossed. Matchbox car in hand, he would run the toy back and forth over the brown painted surface, making little vrooms and beep-beeps as he played.
Ten years later, Robinson’s warmth for that moment has long faded. That was where it started—where she believes Michael ingested the lead-filled dust that poisoned him, leaving him with lifelong learning disabilities. “There isn’t a day I don’t think about it,” Robinson says. “It’s taken over my life.”
Doctors, organic food, costly tutors, special ed teachers—Robinson has tried whatever she can to help her son get ahead, despite the difficulties he’s faced because of lead poisoning. But Michael’s struggles to learn, to pay attention in school, and to get along with other children continue.
While there’s no doubt that the number of children affected by lead poisoning has dropped precipitously since the 70s (when lead was taken out of paint and gasoline), Chicago has the distinction of being home to more cases of lead toxicity than any large city in the U.S.
A recent study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the blood lead levels of third graders between 2003 and 2006—students now likely to be roaming the halls at CPS high schools. It turns out that at three-quarters of Chicago’s 464 elementary schools, the students’ average blood lead level was high enough to be considered poisoned, according to standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And although lead poisoning is rarely mentioned in the debate on how to improve schools, the UIC research shows just how much it may be damaging kids’ ability to succeed. According to the study, lead-poisoned students in Chicago Public Schools are more likely to fail the third grade and score notably lower on their yearly standardized tests.
Lead paint, which was banned in 1978, is still present in thousands of older homes and apartment buildings across Chicago, particularly on the south and west sides, where the housing stock is older. And though lead hazards are clearly identifiable and inexpensive to eradicate, the city’s budget for lead-poisoning prevention has plummeted in recent years.
“Lead poisoning is one of the few causes of social and learning problems that we know how to solve,” said Anita Weinberg, director of Lead Safe Housing Initiatives at Civitas ChildLaw Center at Loyola University. “We can resolve this problem within a generation, but it’s not a priority for the city.”
As money has dried up, the burden to get the word out has fallen on parents like Robinson. She tells parents about the dangers of lead poisoning every day as she helps Englewood residents obtain health care access and child care through her work at Children’s Home and Aid.
“I try to warn them,” says Robinson, who figured out what happened to her son through bloodwork and environmental tests of their home. “I want to let them know so they won’t have to go through what I have gone through.”
This story was originally published in the Chicago Reader on Oct. 31, 2012, and was paid for by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust for the Local Reporting Awards Initiative.