Lead Paint Is Still a Problem in Chicago Apartments, but Expanded Screening Is a Costly Proposition

Removing lead from Chicago homes is a costly but perhaps life-saving proposition for children.

WTTW News previously reported on Chicago’s widespread lead-based paint problem — a toxic hazard still present in the vast majority of city apartments. The problem persists despite a 1978 ban on lead-based paint in Chicago.

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Recently, a young child was poisoned in his Belmont-Cragin apartment and now faces a host of health problems. It’s spurred a debate on whether the city can do more to fix the problem before another child is affected. 

One proposal currently on hold in City Council would require Chicago to hire up to 600 new public health inspectors, according to Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. 

Arwady is advocating for a more targeted, proactive approach. Meanwhile, environmental advocates and some alderpeople want the city to abate the problem in full once and for all.

Alainah Long says she worries whether her 2-year-old son Jedi will ever be able to live a normal life. He was rushed to the emergency room in October after doctors discovered a lead level in his blood of 76 micrograms per deciliter. That’s 14 times the threshold considered dangerous.

“It’s really scary because I didn’t know where this was coming from — and then we found out he was poisoned in our own home,” Long said.

Last October, Chicago health inspectors found a rash of lead paint hazards in the family’s former apartment, including peeling paint chips on doorways and windowsills and lead dust on floors.

“It’s lead paint that’s poisoning our children today,” Arwady told WTTW News.

Arwady says lead paint hazards are present in 99% of Chicago homes built before 1978, which constitutes the vast majority of the city’s housing stock.

“This refuge that we go and spend so much of our life in is oftentimes unhealthy and unsafe,” said John Bartlett, president of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Bartlett says many Chicagoans are unaware of the dangers because the city’s health department is only equipped to step in once a positive level of lead in a blood sample has been reported.

“Nobody should be lead poisoned any longer because of this. We need to be more proactive about dealing with the problem,” Bartlett said.

According to data from the Chicago Department of Public Health, this city has made progress.

In 2021, less than 2% of children tested positive for elevated lead levels in their blood — that’s down from 70% 25 years earlier. But the city says less than half of Chicago children are regularly tested and in some low-income neighborhoods, as many as 40% of residents experience positive test results.

Dr. Anita Raghavan, a pediatrician at UChicago Medicine’s Comer Children’s Hospital, says lead poisoning in children is linked to behavioral and irreversible cognitive health issues.

“Increased lead levels affect a child’s brain, from a lead level of less than 1 to 10, IQ can drop 6.2 points, and that is significant,” Raghavan said.

After Jedi’s emergency room visit, he was diagnosed with mixed expressive language disorder, autism spectrum disorder and moderate cognitive impairment.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd Ward) says she wants the city tackle the problem before more kids are poisoned. She’s sponsoring an ordinance that would create a pilot program in a handful of wards in which health inspectors would screen housing units for lead paint and other health hazards every five years.

“Its a public safety crisis — when you rent a property and bring your family in, you want to know that is a safe space for your family,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said, although she admits she doesn’t yet know the cost of the proposal.

“This is something that can be done in phases ... we do have the resources to do it, it’s just we’re putting resources in different spaces and prioritizing different resources over others,” she said.

Per the proposed ordinance, landlords would have to mitigate any lead paint hazards before.

The Chicagoland Apartment Association did not return requests for comment.

Arwady says her department is in favor of proactive lead paint inspections, but says the agency would have to hire an astronomical 600 new inspectors to accomplish the task citywide. She says the city should start with the highest-risk units.

“I do think it’s something we should take real steps on … where there are problem buildings, where we know there are homes that have the potential for higher level of lead, there is agreement we could be doing more on this,” Arwady said.

Meanwhile, Long says she hopes her son Jedi’s story provides a wakeup call to the city.

“I don’t know how renters are providing these apartments in these conditions and our children are getting sick,” she said.

The proposed ordinance, dubbed the Healthy Homes Checkup Pilot Program, is currently sitting in City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate.

Long says her son is still recording blood lead levels at about three times the level considered hazardous  five months after he was poisoned.

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