“The Link Between Lead Poisoning and Underperforming Students” Chicago Reader feature story

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?

By: Megan Cottrell – Chicago Reader – October 31, 2012

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.”

How do kids become lead poisoned? It’s not usually from eating paint chips. Instead, lead is typically ingested as dust—dust that’s created when old windows and doors are opened and closed, scattering a fine layer of the invisible stuff on a home’s floors and walls. As is presumed to be the case with Michael, children get this dust on their hands, then put their hands in their mouths. It doesn’t take much: a sugar packet’s worth of lead dust scattered over an area the size of a football field is enough to poison a child.

Once lead is in the body, it crosses the blood-brain barrier and can settle in the bones. It disrupts normal brain function, making a child more likely to suffer from learning disabilities, antisocial tendencies, and even violent behavior.

It’s a problem Anne Evens first became aware of when she was working on improving housing on Chicago’s west side in the 80s.

“I was sort of struck by the fact that so many low-income families and building owners were stuck with this situation of having so much lead in the environment—this huge burden that caused children to get sick and building owners to be stuck with the cost of removing the lead,” Evens says.

The problem bothered her so much that she joined the Chicago Department of Public Health and started working as an epidemiologist in the department’s lead-poisoning-prevention program. A few years later, she became the program’s director. In her ten years with the department, she revolutionized the city’s efforts to combat lead, turning the program from a slow-going effort that only helped children after they had already been poisoned to a proactive movement that aimed to prevent poisoning in the first place. Evens helped file a class action lawsuit in 2002 against the paint industry—an effort that later failed—to get more money to remove lead from Chicago’s homes.

Evens felt that to attract the money and attention necessary to rid Chicago of lead hazards, someone needed to quantify how much damage was being done. So she left the health department and got her PhD in environmental health. Her dissertation project? The largest study ever done on how lead poisoning affects schoolchildren.

Evens was able to get the health department and the Chicago Public Schools to share data, and she analyzed the records of thousands of students who were in elementary school between 2003 and 2006, looking at their lead-poisoning test results and comparing those with their standardized test scores. With the wealth of data from the two departments, she could control for outside factors that might affect a child’s learning ability, including poverty, the mother’s education level, and birth weight.

In addition to finding that a child with even low levels of lead in his or her body was more likely to fail the third grade, she also determined that lead-poisoned children scored an average of six points lower on standardized tests—enough to make a difference between passing and failing.

“When you think about how many kids in the CPS school system are just barely passing with regards to meeting the standards, absolutely it makes a big difference,” Evens says. “It impacts a huge number of kids.”

Economist Richard Rothstein has described lead poisoning as the “low-hanging fruit” of education reform, saying it is one of many factors that contribute to the achievement gap between white and minority students. He says the public perception is that lead is no longer a problem, but that’s not the case when it comes to poor, minority neighborhoods.

“Throughout the country, low-income children have more lead exposure than middle-class children,” Rothstein says. “All children are less exposed to lead than they used to be, but the biggest declines have been for middle-class children.”

A further analysis of Evens’s data looked at the average blood lead level for each school in the Chicago Public Schools system. The most widely recognized standard for lead poisoning is ten micrograms per deciliter in a child’s blood. Recently the CDC lowered that standard to five micrograms per deciliter—what the agency refers to as the “level of concern.”

Taking an average of the third-graders’ blood lead levels for each school, the data showed that nearly 75 percent of schools have an average blood lead level over five. In the worst schools, average levels top ten, going as high as 16. Using this new CDC guideline, the number of children considered lead poisoned in Chicago jumped considerably—from one in 80 children to one in ten, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Emile Jorgensen, an epidemiologist with the Chicago Department of Public Health, says that number likely overestimates the amount of children with lead levels above five because of limited accuracy in lab results. He estimates that the number of children with lead rates five and above is more like one in 12.

“When you think about all the challenges that our kids have in terms of performing in school—poverty, gang violence, the list goes on and on—lead is something you can actually do something about and have an impact,” Evens says. “It just seems crazy, as a community that cares about school performance, not to invest in preventing it.”

In addition to being the largest study of its kind, Evens’s research points out that even very low levels of lead can have a negative impact on a child’s ability to learn.

Evens now works at CNT Energy, managing a program that replaces old windows to combat lead poisoning and increase energy efficiency. Since she left the health department in 2006, funding has fallen and inspectors have been laid off.

Says Evens: “As a city that has historically had so many lead-poisoned kids, to be substantially reducing efforts to fight it—that’s very worrisome.”

The corner of 69th street and Emerald in Englewood is occupied by two vacant lots, a small corner store, and a storefront office with boarded-up windows and a banner on the door that reads, “Imagine Englewood If . . .” As children file in for an after-school tutoring session, Joanna Brown locks the door after them. On the back of the door hangs a sign that reads, in scripted red marker, “Attention Children, do not open this door for anyone.”

If Chicago is the nation’s capital of lead poisoning, Englewood is its center square. In the 90s, the neighborhood had the highest lead-poisoning rates in the entire country.

“In poor neighborhoods, the lead just does not get cleaned up,” Brown says. “It’s in the soil, the windows, the floors, and the babies just walk through it.”

If Chicago is the nation’s capital of lead poisoning, Englewood is its center square. In the 90s, Englewood had the highest lead-poisoning rates in the country.

Brown sits at a long table, surrounded by the brightly decorated room, cubicles on one side and classroom-style setup on the other. She squints at her laptop, sending out e-mails about a meeting at the local school, Miles Davis Magnet Academy. Through a small grant from the Woods Foundation, Imagine Englewood If has been working to increase lead-poisoning awareness, talking to parents at local schools and encouraging local landlords to deal with lead hazards in their apartments.

“To me, it changes the whole conversation about why Johnny can’t read,” Brown says. “It’s no longer that he’s less able or less intelligent.”

Imagine Englewood If used to be able to administer lead tests to schoolchildren in the area, but the funding’s dried up. The group wants to petition Springfield for more funding and is hoping to develop legislation that would provide extra resources to communities like theirs.

Imagine Englewood If has gotten help from Loyola University’s child law program, which has also awarded a handful of small grants to aid efforts throughout the city to educate families about the dangers of lead. It’s not enough, says Loyola’s Weinberg. While making families aware of the lead is a start, the problem is too large to be taken on by the individual.

Weinberg points to potential legislation being drafted by the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, an advocacy group for renters’ rights, that would require every apartment in the city to be inspected every few years, not just when a child is found to be lead poisoned.

“Right now, it doesn’t come to the city’s attention unless the child has already been poisoned,” Weinberg says. “We want to prevent the child from becoming sick.”

John Bartlett, director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, says they’re working on the ordinance. So far they’ve met with several aldermen, but none has signed on as a sponsor.

Chicago doesn’t directly spend a dime on lead-poisoning prevention. The lead-poisoning-prevention department is funded through grants from outside organizations: the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Illinois Department of Public Health, Cook County, and until recently, the CDC. From 2008 to 2011, the CDC gave the department nearly $5 million, but that ended in 2012, when the CDC’s national budget for lead-poisoning prevention was cut from $30 million to $2 million.

Dr. Cortland Lohff, director of Chicago’s lead-poisoning-prevention program, says the department was forced to eliminate some inspector positions and use those funds to support other nursing and administrative positions. He says a new, smaller grant from the Cook County Department of Public Health will help rehab 300 homes over the next three years and remove lead hazards.

So what does the city spend the rest of the grant money on? It’s not entirely clear. Although the 2012 city budget details what the department intends to spend in specific categories—inspectors, testing, epidemiologists, even office supplies—CDPH was unable to provide detailed numbers for previous years. Efrat Stein, a former department spokesperson, said those records were “not readily available,” and was unaware if the program spent every dollar collected on lead abatement. Quenjana Adams, the department’s current spokesperson, did not provide further information.

Lohff points to the department’s successes, saying the number of children found to have suffered lead poisoning has vastly decreased over the last decade. But the city mainly focuses on children with higher levels of lead: ten and above.

“The numbers of kids who have been lead poisoned have certainly come down, but when we start recognizing the dangers to kids at lower levels, those numbers are way up there still,” says Weinberg.

“All of my kids are different, but he was so different. It took a lot of one-on-one time.”—Kindergarten teacher Dorothea Lane

By law, a building owner has to safely get rid of a lead hazard once it’s identified, but Weinberg says this doesn’t always happen. When a hazard isn’t taken care of, the city pursues the property owner, filing a case with administrative hearings and escalating it to housing court if the hazard isn’t taken care of. The entire process takes months, sometimes years. This year alone, the city has filed 114 cases in housing court over lead hazards that still haven’t been abated.

In many households with toxic lead levels, families are often struggling to keep the lights on or put food on the table, says Judy Frydland, a city attorney who supervises lead cases in housing court. Frydland says her attorneys make sure lead hazards are cleaned up. She also says that, compared to the homeowners’ other struggles, the threat of lead can seem distant and vague.

“I remember handling cases saying to people, ‘You are hurting your own child,'” Frydland says. “But the population you’re dealing with has so many other problems.”

Nicholson Elementary kindergarten teacher Dorethea Lane first became aware of lead poisoning when a five-year-old boy named Michael ended up in her class. She had 32 kids in her classroom that year and the extra attention and help Michael needed was daunting. Lead poisoning had delayed his speech, he couldn’t focus, and he didn’t work well with the other children.

“All of my kids are different, but he was so different,” Lane says. “The other kids were affected by his behavior. It took a lot of one-on-one time.”

She could see that Michael was bright, but he couldn’t communicate or finish a task. When she noticed that he could calm down if he had something to do with his hands, she brought in Legos for him to build with. He loved learning about the solar system and astronauts, so she would find books, pictures, and computer games about space to help him.

Lane says no one—not teachers, principals, social workers, nor counselors—considers lead poisoning when trying to figure out what’s preventing a “low-performing” child from learning. She says lead poisoning has never been a part of her teacher training or professional development with the Chicago Public Schools.

“We as educators should know more about it,” she says

Michael’s progress has pushed Lane to learn more about how lead could be affecting her students. Ten years later, Michael has a larger vocabulary and no longer needs speech therapy. He still struggles with reading comprehension, but he excels in math. His attention span is getting better.

Lane says that if teachers knew more about what lead does to the brain and how it was affecting kids in their classrooms, more could be done to help them. But there’s currently no coordinated effort between the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Department of Public Health to inform teachers or parents about the dangers of lead poisoning.

CPS spokesperson Robyn Ziegler says the school system tries to encourage students to get tested for lead poisoning, as required by law, before they start school, and works to connect students who have lead poisoning to medical help and special education.

But according to city data, less than half of Chicago’s kids have been tested for lead. In some neighborhoods, the testing rate is as low as 13 percent.

Ziegler says CPS works with supporting organizations to address the issue of lead poisoning, but did not give names of any specific organizations or programs the district is involved in.

Officials at CPS received Evens’s study, but had no official response. Ziegler notes that the district’s leadership has changed since the study was released.

Patricia Robinson, Michael’s mother, believes that officials don’t care because the kids who are affected live in neighborhoods like Englewood, not where their own children live and go to school.

“If it’s not in your family, if it’s not in your area, why should you care about it?” she says. “It’s not a concern for you.”

She blames herself, too, for what she wishes she’d noticed a decade ago, when her little boy sat playing in the windowsill.

“Why didn’t I know?” she says. “I should have known—but word don’t get out, so you don’t know.”

View full text article here

Help Yourself to a Healthy Home

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers education on how to protect your children’s health with this booklet “Help Yourself to a Healthy Home.”   Learn about what hidden dangers may be in your home and how get rid of them.  Healthy Home topics include: indoor air quality, asthma & allergies, mold & moisture, carbon monoxide, lead, drinking water, hazardous household products, pesticides and home safety.

To learn more about Healthy Homes or to speak to an Organizer call us at 773-292-4980 ext 231

Help Yourself to a Healthy Home

Link:  http://www.hud.gov/offices/lead/library/hhi/HYHH_Booklet.pdf

Are Our Neighborhoods Making Us Sick? Spring 2012 Shelterforce

The Spring edition of Shelterforce Magazine (published by the National Housing Institute) focused on Healthy Homes and Environmental Justice.  Check out the below articles to learn more about how housing, community development and your health are closely related.

“Better Together” – The community development and health sectors can and should work together to reduce health disparities and improve everyone’s health.  By David Erickson and Nancy O. Andrews

“Housing First” – The conventional approach to homelessness starts with services. But starting with permanent housing instead costs less and works better.  By Nan Roman and Lisa Stand

“Foreclosing on Our Health?” – In a dangerous cycle, medical bills are a common cause of foreclosure—and the stress and financial crisis of foreclosure causes an increase in serious health problems.  By Rachel Blake

“Breathing Easier” – A Massachusetts-based program provides home environment assessments, education, and home remediation services—often resulting in the improved health and lives of families.  By Emily W. Rosenbaum

“Taking Health Into Account” – By systematically assessing the health risks of development decisions upfront, health impact assessments can prevent costly and harmful mistakes.  By Aaron Wernham

“California’s New Environmental Movement” – How communities of color, using health and jobs as rallying cries, took on Big Oil — and won!  By Catherine Lerza

“Healthy Yards with Youth in Charge” – The Worcester, Mass., Toxic Soil Busters co-op shows improving a neighborhood’s health doesn’t have to be limited to experts and outsiders.  By Asa Needle, Jonathan Rodrigues and Matt Feinstein

“The Intersection of Health Philanthropy and Housing” – Health philanthropy and community development have historically worked on separate tracks. That’s changing.  By Marjorie Paloma

“Prescription for a New Neighborhood” – Housing mobility can complement community revitalization for children with serious health challenges.  By Philip Tegeler and Salimah Hankins

“Unsorting Our Cities” – To improve the health of residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods, we have to address inequality, not medical care.   By Mindy Fullilove

“Health and Community Development Resources” – If you want to explore the intersection of health and community development further, here are some places to start.

Shelterforce #169/Spring 2012 – http://www.shelterforce.org/archive/issues/169/

Bedbugs: not dead yet. Chicago Reader feature article

Bedbugs: not dead yet

Bedbug infestations are on the rise in Chicago—and the number of complaints barely scratches the surface

By: Julia Thiel – Chicago Reader 

Taina Rodriguez was at the dog beach with her husband and two mini schnauzers one afternoon last June when she got a disturbing phone call from her neighbor. There’s been an explosion in your apartment, the neighbor said. You should hurry home.

As Rodriguez and her husband, Hernan Velarde, both 31, made their way back to their Albany Park two-flat, other neighbors and her landlord were calling too. By the time they got there, the fire had been put out and their street and two others were blocked off by fire trucks and police. The landlord asked her not to talk to the officers, saying he’d handle everything, Rodriguez says. She didn’t argue: “I was in a complete state of shock.”

The cause of the fire, according to Rodriguez: bedbugs.

In late April, Rodriguez had started waking up with itchy welts on the right side of her body. After identifying bedbugs as the cause, she called a pest control company out to her place for a quote. They told her it would cost around $1,200 and they’d need permission from her landlord, Greg Puchalski, to do the treatment. But Rodriguez claims that Puchalski refused—even though she said she’d pay for it. “He goes, ‘No, Taina, I fix it, I fix it,'” she says. “‘I’ll do it my way.'” (Puchalski denies that the conversation took place.)

Puchalski’s fix, according to Rodriguez, was to gas the place. “He came in and put propane tanks in our apartment,” she says. “He thought he could heat up the apartment and the bedbugs would die. One of his brothers, who was also co-owner of our apartment building, had seen a segment about bedbugs on TV.”

Rodriguez says Puchalski had been using propane tanks in her bedroom to treat the bedbugs for a couple months—often when she and her husband were home—before the explosion occurred. The day of the fire, she and Velarde had been out of the house in the morning; when they stopped at home to pick up the dogs and take them to the beach, she noticed that their bedroom door was closed. Neighbors saw the explosion in their bedroom, and one claims to have seen Puchalski go in after the fire to remove the tank, according to Rodriguez.

Puchalski says he never used propane tanks in the apartment. When I called he told me that his brother Jack was Rodriguez’s landlord and I should talk to him, but eventually admitted that he was usually the one Rodriguez would call when she was having problems with her apartment. (Jack Puchalski never returned my calls.) Greg at first avoided my questions, but finally said that Rodriguez “probably” had called him about a bedbug problem, and “probably I sprayed.” He was adamant that he had never put propane tanks in the apartment, though, and said that the fire was caused not by an explosion but by an electrical problem.

Rodriguez argues that their bathroom fixtures—sink, toilet, bathtub—ended up on the second floor of her building as a result of the explosion. She doesn’t think that would happen from an electrical fire.

Greg Puchalski’s insurance company is currently investigating the case, but Rodriguez says it’s complicated by the fact that many of the neighbors who saw what happened live in buildings owned by the Puchalskis. “The community where I lived, it’s all undocumented folks. They don’t want to talk because they don’t want to get in trouble,” she says. “My brother-in-law doesn’t even want to talk because he feels that he will lose his apartment.” (Rodriguez is a U.S. citizen; her husband is not.)

Rodriguez says the fire destroyed 95 percent of their possessions, including her wheelchair and medications (she and her husband are both disabled: she has Marfan syndrome; he suffered a work-related injury that left his lower back fused). The Red Cross helped them replace their medications, and they were able to stay with Velarde’s brother, who lived across the street, while they looked for a new place. Rodriguez went back to work after taking a couple days off—she’s a constituent advocate for Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky—and Velarde went back to repairing home appliances (he’s self-employed). They found another place to live and moved in. Looking back on the incident, Rodriguez says: “Let me put it to you this way: [the bedbugs] all burned.”

Bedbugs have been feeding on humans since we first lived in caves, and humans have been going to extremes to get rid of them for just about as long. In 1777 The Compleat Vermin-Killer advised people to fill cracks in the bed with gunpowder and light it on fire; another remedy, recommended by Good Housekeeping in 1889, was composed of a mix of alcohol, turpentine, and highly toxic mercury chloride. Fumigation was also popular, first with brimstone (sulfur) and then in the 1900s with the toxic gas hydrogen cyanide.

It’s easy to see why bedbugs can inspire such extreme reactions: the apple-seed-sized bloodsuckers feed on humans at night, usually leaving red, itchy welts behind (about a third of the population has no reaction to bedbug bites). They reproduce quickly, like to hide in small crevices, and can live up to a year between feedings, which makes them very difficult to eradicate. They also travel well: the bugs can crawl through cracks in the walls to an adjacent unit in an apartment building, stow away on used bedding or clothing, or climb onto a bag or coat set down in an infested area.

Home remedies notwithstanding, bedbugs flourished in the U.S. up until the 1940s. The introduction of DDT and other pesticides in the ’40s eliminated them almost entirely, and they remained extremely rare for about another 50 years, when reports of them started to multiply exponentially. The 2011 Bugs Without Borders Survey by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky, which polled close to 1,000 pest control companies, found that 99 percent of them had encountered bedbug infestations in the past year, up from 11 percent ten years ago. No one knows for sure what has caused the uptick, though leading theories include an increase in international travel (bedbugs are more common in developing countries than developed ones), the banning of DDT, and genetic mutations in bedbugs that have made them resistant to insecticides.

Few laymen know how to handle an infestation. Most bug bombs and foggers, for example, are not only ineffective against bedbugs but can spread the problem by driving bedbugs into other rooms. Dini Miller, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and one of the few researchers in the country who specializes in bedbugs, says she once talked to a guy who had set off ten bug bombs in his apartment, and when that didn’t work, he followed up with 30 more. “I’m surprised he did not blow his windows out,” she says. “The walls were so sticky with the residue, and yet live bedbugs that had fed the night before are crawling around while we’re standing there talking.”

Getting funding for bedbug research is difficult, though, because bedbugs aren’t known to carry any diseases and most funding agencies are interested in disease vectors. Additionally, Miller says, there aren’t likely to be any new insecticides on the market soon: the approval process takes about ten years. “It could not be better for bedbugs in the United States,” Miller says.

There’s very little official tracking of bedbug complaints in Chicago, which makes it difficult to get a sense of just how big the problem is locally. A list released last year by Terminix, a large pest-control company, declares Chicago the fourth most bedbug-infested city in the U.S.,behind New York, Cincinnati, and Detroit; another company, Orkin, says it’s the second most infested city, behind only Cincinnati. But neither company revealed the data behind its claims, and both are for-profit organizations that may do more business in some cities than others.

Neither the Cook County nor the Chicago health departments keep records of bedbug complaints; both agencies say it’s because bedbugs don’t spread disease and therefore aren’t considered a public health threat. The Illinois Department of Public Health doesn’t keep up with them either, but Curt Colwell, an entomologist who fields bedbug-related complaints to the department, has been unofficially tracking the number of calls he’s gotten for the past eight years. “I have seen the number of bedbug calls trending upward and relatively unchecked through 2011,” he says. Before 2004 he had no complaints of bedbugs. He got two calls that year, four the next, and ten the year after that; the number has more or less doubled each year through 2010. In 2011 he got 253 complaints, about a third of his total calls. That includes all of Illinois, though Colwell says that Chicago accounts for the majority of his calls.

The City of Chicago’s Department of Buildings tracks the number of bedbug infestations reported through 311 calls, and reports a trend similar to the one Colwell has seen. The department started keeping a record in 2006; there were 25 calls that year, 50 the next, and 103 in 2008. Since then the number of calls has increased by roughly 100 each year, totaling 376 in 2011. But that only includes the people who already suspect they have bedbugs when they call, says department spokesperson Caroline Weisser. Calls are tracked by keyword, so if someone says that they’re having an insect problem it won’t be recorded as a bedbug call, even if the city later determines that bedbugs were the issue. And, of course, not everyone who has bedbugs calls the city. The stigma associated with bedbugs means that homeowners are likely to get them exterminated quietly rather than reporting it to anyone. Even renters can be reluctant to come forward.

The Metropolitan Tenants Organization started keeping track of bedbug cases in 2009, when it got 215 calls about them; in 2010 they got 307 calls, and 372 in 2011. Those numbers are similar to the ones reported by Chicago’s buildings department, but Sara Mathers, who investigates bedbug complaints for the MTO, believes they’re artificially low.

“People are nervous about it, or they don’t know exactly what they have,” Mathers says. Or they’re afraid of being evicted, which isn’t legal but happens anyway. “So when you’re looking at the percentage of what is reported to 311 and us, it’s a small percentage.”

Mathers says infestations are often isolated—just one unit in a building with dozens or hundreds units, for example—but left untreated, bedbugs multiply quickly and can spread to other units.

She also says bed bugs are more widespread than people think: “I would venture to say that basically every single high-rise in the city is infested. Eighty to 100 percent have at least one case of bedbugs.”

Brittany Barton, 25, was living in a 60-unit building in Edgewater last August when she realized she had bedbugs. She reported it to her management company, and they sent an exterminator to spray her apartment. Barton also threw out her bed and most of her other furniture, along with some of her clothes. About a month later, she noticed more bedbugs, and the exterminators sprayed again. She wrote letters to the other tenants in her building to find out if they were having problems, and the man who lived below her immediately came upstairs to say he had them too but had been too embarrassed to say anything. They suspected but never confirmed that the bugs were coming up from two units below Barton’s, where a hoarder who collected used furniture lived. Barton says the management was trying to get the woman evicted, but in the meantime, no matter how many times her own apartment was sprayed the bedbugs came back.

This went on for three or four months, until finally Barton decided she had to get out because it was affecting her graduate studies at Loyola. “I couldn’t sleep. I started having really bad anxiety, and I felt like I was becoming obsessive-compulsive because I would walk around my apartment with a pair of tweezers and pick up every single bedbug that I found. And then I started walking in my hallway area, up and down my steps, looking for bedbugs. It took over my life.”

Barton went to her management company and asked to be let out of her lease, which they eventually agreed to—though a manager also told her, “You can leave your apartment, but anywhere you go, you’re going to bring the infestation with you.” Barton says she was very careful when she moved and hasn’t had any problems in her new place.

If residents are hesitant to report bedbug infestations, sometimes it’s with good reason. Rosine Mensah, a 72-year-old retired substance abuse counselor, first heard about bedbugs in her building in early 2009. She lives in the Beth Ann Residences, Section 8 subsidized housing for seniors in Austin. “When I first found out about it,” Mensah says, “there was a lady standing downstairs by the security office, and she was crying because they had thrown out her furniture. It was gorgeous furniture, beautiful! And they had put it out in the Dumpsters. That was before they learned anything themselves about the bedbugs.”

Mensah had never heard of bedbugs before either, but did some online research and read that discarding furniture was unnecessary. “We had people sleeping in wheelchairs, sleeping on the floor. They threw out everything. The beds, the couches, the chairs. They didn’t really have the right to throw our furniture out. They didn’t ask; they just demanded that we throw it out.”

With the help of the MTO, Mensah and a few other residents were able to organize and get the management to implement better practices for eradicating the bedbugs, like investing in a heat treatment machine (bedbugs can’t survive temperatures above 113 degrees Fahrenheit). In addition, they worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which manages Section 8 programs, to get funds to replace the furniture that had been thrown away.

The bedbugs haven’t been eradicated from the building completely, though. Mensah herself got them last year (she thinks that workers who were winterizing the building tracked them in from an infested unit). Her extermination process went pretty smoothly, but there are others in the building who still won’t report bedbugs when they’re having a problem. “They will not tell anyone until they are just crawling all over the walls everywhere,” Mensah says. “They’re afraid that they’re going to throw their stuff out, or they’re embarrassed, or they’re afraid they’re going to have to move.”

Mathers says that as bad as conditions were in Mensah’s building, they’ve improved significantly in the last couple years. In some ways, things are easier now for tenants in subsidized housing than in market-rate buildings because HUD has a list of best practices and can hold management companies accountable. “We did see a lot [of bedbugs] in low-income areas, subsidized buildings,” Mathers says. “Now we’re getting more of the market rate. I’m getting a lot of calls for two-flats and three-flats and that’s what scares me. That’s where I see the problem growing.”

Ann Hinterman, housing specialist for 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore, deals with the bedbug calls that come to Moore’s office. “One of the challenges is that although there are ordinances in the municipal code that tell landlords and tenants how pest infestations need to be handled, they aren’t specific to bedbugs,” she says. Landlords are required to exterminate if two or more units of a multiunit building are infested, or if the infestation of a single unit is due to landlord negligence. Getting landlords to follow through and pay for the extermination, though, is a different matter.

Robert Shumate, 29, who works in management at a hotel downtown and lives in a 176-unit building at Sheridan and Foster, realized he had bedbugs last July when he kept getting bitten. “When I discovered I had them, I went crazy,” he says. He went to Google to find all the information he could, then reported the problem to his building’s management company. He was told that they’d call an exterminator, and also that they wouldn’t pay for it. “I was like, whatever, I need for them to be gone,” Shumate says.

The exterminator came out and sprayed, then sprayed again a month later after Shumate started getting bitten again. Meanwhile, he had been in touch with his alderman, the MTO, and the City of Chicago, and learned that paying for the exterminator shouldn’t be his responsibility since his unit wasn’t the only one in the building affected: a neighbor told him that there were several other units that had bedbugs. The management company, however, said otherwise, claiming Shumate’s infestation was an isolated one and blaming him for the bedbugs because he worked in a hotel.

“The exterminator himself, because I asked him, said you couldn’t tell,” Shumate says. “It could have been a clothing store, it could have been a theater. Maybe they came in on your maintenance man who did maintenance in an infested unit and then brought them to my unit. They don’t carry passports with them; they don’t have little GPSes.”

Since the second treatment, Shumate says, he’s been bedbug free, but he’s still battling the management company over who will foot the $300 bill. He says it’s not so much the money at this point as the principle. He doesn’t think he should have to pay for it, and says that knuckling under will just make it worse for others. “There’s a lot of shame in it. You think, oh my god, bedbugs, that’s disgusting. And it is. I’m sleeping with bugs, and they’re eating me while I’m sleeping! I think there’s a big taboo with it, and by not talking about it, it just perpetuates the problem.”

Mathers would like to see stronger legislation around bedbugs, stating that it’s a landlord’s responsibility to pay for extermination—with specific consequences if a landlord doesn’t follow through. In fact, most states don’t have laws specific to bedbugs, especially ones that dictate what a landlord’s responsibilities are. Both New York and Maine have passed bedbug legislation in the last couple years, and Florida and Texas mention bedbugs in their pest control laws—but that’s about it. Illinois, in fact, does mention bedbugs in one law, but it’s not exactly recent: it requires railroad cars to be bedbug free.

48th Ward alderman Harry Osterman is working on bedbug legislation that he plans to present to the City Council within the next few months. His office is in the process of coming up with a list of best practices, using cities like New York as a model. He’d like to see better coordination between the buildings and health departments, more public education, and a defined system of landlord/tenant responsibilities. “Chicago has a huge bedbug issue,” Osterman says. “I think the magnitude of it isn’t something people have quite come to grips with yet. Unless we’re able to deal with it, it’s going to continue to be a problem.”

Currently when a Chicago resident calls 311, an inspector is sent out to the building and if bedbugs are found, the owner is given a citation and ordered to appear in administrative court, says buildings department spokeswoman Weisser. The court works with the owner to bring him or her into compliance, and may issue fines for noncompliance. “A lot of management companies build that into their budget,” Mathers says. “Like, ‘Sure, we’re going to get a couple fines and then we’re going to keep doing what we do.'”

State laws about who pays for extermination are even less clear, says Colwell. Last year the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Structural Pest Control Advisory Council formed a bedbug subcommittee, which produced a report of recommendations to curb the bedbug problem in Illinois; the report will be presented to the legislature in the next month or so. Among the recommendations: define landlord/tenant responsibilities (tenants must report bedbugs and facilitate their removal; landlords are responsible for getting them exterminated), improve public awareness, and enable local health departments to respond to bedbug complaints.

What the legislature will do with those recommendations remains to be seen, Colwell says, but in the meantime the bedbug problem tends to be particularly severe in low-income buildings where landlords refuse to deal with the critters and tenants can’t afford to pay for professional pest control themselves.

Mathers has seen plenty of buildings that fit Colwell’s description, and says that one in Rogers Park is especially bad: some residents have been living with bedbugs for years because the landlords refuse to effectively treat the infestation. Arbie Bowman, 43, lives there with her seven-year-old daughter, Rosie, and no longer has bedbugs—no thanks to the building management, she says. After her daughter started getting bitten a little over a year ago, Bowman told the maintenance man about the problem and says that he laughed at her. “Like it was a joke,” she says. “This ain’t no joke.”

Maintenance came to her apartment a few times over the next few months to spray alcohol and put down powder to get rid of the bugs, but it didn’t help. Meanwhile, Rosie was sleeping on the coffee table because she got bitten every time she tried to sleep in her bed. “I slept in a chair, right there by my daughter watching her,” Bowman says. “I’m lucky if I got two hours of sleep at nighttime.”

Bowman started attacking the bedbugs herself, spraying the entire place with alcohol every day after her daughter left for school, even standing the mattresses on end to get all parts of them. It’s an extremely difficult way to eradicate bedbugs, which are good at hiding in tiny crevices, but she eventually managed it.

Bowman says Rosie still wakes up in the night thinking that there are bugs crawling on her. And knowing that many other units in the building are infested with bedbugs, Bowman doesn’t let anyone except her immediate family into her apartment. “I can’t take that chance,” she says. “With my daughter still having them nightmares . . . God forbid if I get them again.”

The management doesn’t tell people who are moving in that there are bedbugs and mice in the building, Bowman says, and now that they know she’s working with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization to help organize other residents, they’re trying to kick her out. Despite everything, Bowman doesn’t want to move: rent is cheap, and if she moves she’s likely to lose her job in home health care, which is in the same building where she lives.

She’s still hoping that the organizing she’s been doing with MTO will eventually make a difference. “I just want them people to get rid of the mices and get rid of the bedbugs and start helping these tenants out,” she says. “What me and my child went through for three months, I wish on nobody.”

National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week is October 23-29th

National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week is October 23-29th, 2011.  Children under age 6 are most at risk for lead poisoning.  You can prevent lead poisoning by getting your home tested, getting your child tested and getting the facts.

  • Lead is a metal that is found in many places.  You can’t always see lead, even when it is present in substances like paint, dust, or dirt.
  • Lead in the body is not safe at any level.  It only takes a very small amount to cause damage.
  • Childhood lead poisoning can lead to life-long health problems, including learning disabilities, increased need for special education and higher crime rates.  Lead harms the brain, making it harder for children to learn and can cause behavioral problems.
  • Most children do not have any physical symptoms.  Warning signs include:  stomach pains, constipation, poor appetite, sleep problems, irritability, headaches, weakness, or loss of a recently learned skill.
  • Children are most often exposed to lead in their home and at places they visit.
  • Lead was added to paint until 1978.
  • In housing built before 1978, assume that the paint has led unless tests show otherwise.
  • Children eat lead by getting lead on their hands and then putting their hands in their mouth.
  • Make sure your child does not have access to peeling paint or chew-able surfaces painted with lead-based paint by creating barriers between living/play areas and lead sources.  You can temporarily apply contact paper or duct tape to cover spaces with sources of lead.
  • Regularly wash your children’s hands and toys.  Both can become contaminated from household dust or exterior soil.
  • Regularly wet-mop floors and wet-wipe windows–dry-dust, sweeping or vacuuming will spread lead dust.
  • Wipe dirt off shoes before coming inside your home.
  • Whenever new exposures to lead may have occurred, have your child tested.
  • DO NOT disturb paint without protecting your family from the dust that occurs during abatement.
  • Feed your child 3 healthy meals a day–a diet high in iron, calcium and Vitamin C will help fight any lead in a child’s body.
  • Do not use pottery for cooking or serving until you are sure of its glaze.  Pottery can be contaminated with lead.
  • Draw drinking water and cooking water only from the cold tap.  Let it run for a few minutes first.
  • Teach your child to wash their hands before eating.

The City of Chicago provides FREE lead inspections to homes with children under 6 years old and/or with children under 6 who frequently visit, call 311 and ask for lead inspection TODAY.

For information about tenants’ rights: call Megan Borneman, MTO Healthy Homes Organizer… 773-292-4980 ext. 231

For resources available to Chicago residents:  call the Chicago Department of Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention… 312-747-LEAD (5323)

For resources available to non-Chicago residents in Cook County:  call the Cook County Lead Prevention Program… 708-492-2076

How to Guide for Clean-Up of Flooded Homes

From the National Center for Healthy Housing:

A guide developed to help homeowners and contractors safely clean up homes damaged in the recent floods caused by Hurricane Irene is available immediately. Creating a Healthy Home: A Field Guide for Clean-up of Flooded Homes is a do-it-yourself booklet that provides easy, step-by-step instructions on how to handle mold removal in flooded homes before starting to rebuild or renovate. Agencies working directly with individuals impacted by the floods can also order a shipment of printed booklets to distribute to those needing assistance. Please call the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) at 877.312.3046 for more information.

A weekend of heavy rain has brought flooding problems to communities all along the East Coast of the United States. Officials in Vermont are calling it the worst storm since 1927. Many homes have already endured extensive damage and required evacuation; and in many places the water is still on the rise.

“Our hearts go out to the families dealing with the loss of lives and homes caused by this Hurricane Irene. Recovering from a flood can be overwhelming. We hope this guide will help families reduce the damage to their homes and prevent mold growth” said Rebecca Morley, Executive Director of NCHH, based in Columbia, MD. “Mold exposure may cause allergic reactions, such as asthma attacks, sneezing, runny nose, red eyes, and skin rash. Even dead mold spores pose a risk, especially for children and adults with respiratory problems,” said Morley.

In 2005, NCHH researched and wrote the guide with funding and technical support from Enterprise Community Partners, a leading national community development organization. The instructional guide documents a protocol that was tested on four homes in New Orleans following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In a home that experienced at least five feet of standing water for at least two weeks and had mold growth up to the ceiling, the protocol reduced the mold to non-detectable levels.

Acting quickly and removing standing water and water-damaged materials within the first 48 hours is critical for preventing mold growth. NCHH recommends the following steps for cleaning up flooded homes.

  • Remove standing water and dry out the building as soon as you can. Open doors and windows. Mop up or pump out any standing water.
  • Use a mild detergent and water to clean and remove mold from hard surfaces.
  • Use fans and dehumidifiers to remove moisture after cleaning. Be careful not to blow mold around while drying—point fans to blow outside.
  • Throw away moldy things that can not be cleaned, such as carpets and carpet padding, upholstered furniture, drywall, wood molding, fiberglass or cellulose insulation, and ceiling tiles.
  • If there is more than 10 square feet (about 3 ft. X 3 ft.) of mold in your house, consider using a professional mold clean-up contractor. Do not hire a contractor who recommends fogging or spraying as a way to clean up mold. Moldy materials must be removed from the building.
  • Wipe dry or allow all surfaces to fully air-dry before doing any more work. Make sure that the home is allowed to completely dry before beginning restoration.
  • Additionally, to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, residents are reminded not to operate generators within buildings. In the case of power outages, generators should only be operated outside of an enclosed space.

National housing organizations Enterprise Community Partners, NCHH, and NeighborWorks®America partnered with NeighborWorks Organization and Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans to develop the clean-up protocols. Columbia University and Tulane University provided expertise for the demonstration project. The guide was developed through the generous support of The Home Depot Foundation.

Region 5 HUD Bed Bug Memo

Metropolitan Tenants Organization, in partnership with Region 5 HUD, Georgia HAP, Shriver Center, Community Investment Corporation, and several other agencies and community organizations, is happy to announce the completion of our guidelines memo on the best practices of bed bug control. Region 5 HUD distributed this memo to all Region 5 HUD property owners and agents in March 2011. Members of this partnership conducted much research on the best practices of bed bug control and on already existing HUD policy on general pest control to create this document.

This guidelines memo was written largely in part in response to the bad practices that have been employed by both landlords and tenants in efforts to rid their properties of infestations. Due to the dramatic spike in the frequency of calls to the Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s Tenants Rights’ Hotline regarding bed bugs, it came to the attention of MTO that there is not much awareness nor are there many protections available to renters who deal with bed bug infestations in Chicago. Since then, MTO has worked diligently to ensure that there will be more education around the issue and more protections available to renters.
MTO convened this roundtable of partners in response to these bad practices in efforts to inform renters, landlords, and private homeowners on how to eradicate bed bugs in the most safe, effective, and economical ways. Many initiatives were discussed, including an educational campaign for both renters and landlords on how to effectively deal with bed bugs and an initiative to prevent the spread of infestations by properly marking or destroying infested mattresses and other pieces of furniture that have been disposed of in alleys, in addition to the memo/policy on the use of best practices in bed bug control.
The initial goal of the roundtable was to create a Region 5 HUD bed bug policy to be distributed to all HUD property owners and agents in the region. As it turned out, federal agencies do not have the jurisdiction to write and enforce policy at the regional level. As an alternative, the roundtable decided to go ahead with writing the document as a guidance memo to Region 5 HUD owners and agents. Click here to read the document in full. The roundtable will next work on getting national HUD to create and enforce a bed bug policy on the national level.

HUD Bed Bug Memo

Deadly Dangers of Using the Stove for Heat

During the winter season, MTO’s hotline receives numerous calls from tenants about a lack of heat in their units.  When we ask what steps the resident uses to address the problem in the meantime, a frightening number report that they are using their gas stoves as a solution.  Some residents leave the burners on, some continuously boil large pots of water, and others leave the oven door open.  All of these actions can and do lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

What prompted the writing of this post was a recent conversation with a tenant.  The tenant was following up to report the lack of heat in her unit.  She explained that not only was this problem irritating, but that her entire family has experienced constant headaches and she was even having trouble waking up, which was not normally a problem for her.  She mentioned that her sister had called her earlier and she hadn’t heard the phone ring.  Her kids – especially her daughter who slept in the back bedroom near the kitchen— was having a lot of difficulty waking up for school.  All of these incidences are major symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide can slowly put you to sleep and once asleep, you are unable to escape the hazard.  Hundreds of people die in a carbon monoxide induced sleep every year according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Those that don’t die from heating their homes with gas stoves still experience less than lethal, but still harmful, side effects.  “At low concentrations, [CO can cause] fatigue in healthy people and chest pain in people with heart disease. At higher concentrations, [CO can cause] impaired vision and coordination; headaches; dizziness; confusion; nausea. Fatal at very high concentrations.” (USEPA)

So what should one do when it just gets too cold? Electric space heaters with safety mechanisms to prevent fires and other hazards are good options for small spaces. Tenants should also call 311, request a heat inspection, and get a reference number for their phone call. Generally, during the winter season, it may take up to three days for a heat inspector to conduct an investigation in your home.  For more information about your rights and possible remedies when heat or other essential services are not working properly, click here.

CLICK BELOW FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT:

When Bed Bugs Attack

Bed bugs have returned, invading our hospitals, hotels, public transportation, and most unsettling of all, our homes. While bed bugs do not transmit disease, bed bugs have proven to be a serious nuisance to homeowners and renters alike, across the nation.

While New York City leads the nation in reported incidents of bed bug infestations, according to an August 2010 report released by Terminix, the Windy City does not find itself far behind – we live in the fifth most bed bug infested city in the U.S. MTO can certainly attest to this, as hotline calls pertaining to bed bugs have increased dramatically in the last two years. In 2010, MTO received 313, usually very frantic, calls with complaints of bed bugs. Two years ago, bed bug calls to MTO’s hotline were nonexistent.

In response to this sudden reemergence of bed bugs in Chicago, MTO has led efforts to create a roundtable of representatives from HUD, EPA, Chicago Department of Public Health, Illinois Department of Public Health, and other invested agencies and community organizations. MTO is actively working with this group on creating a policy proposal for HUD subsidized buildings. Among other recommendations,  MTO has proposed the following to be included in a HUD policy on bed bugs:

-Landlords should disclose any known bed bug infestations within the previous 12 months to prospective renters,

-HUD should support an initiative for an educational campaign on bed bugs and pest control,

-Landlords should hire certified/licensed pest control professionals for both bed bug inspections and treatments,

-Landlords should encourage tenant notification of bed bug sightings by never retaliating against tenants (e.g. imposing fees, threatening eviction, etc),

-and HUD should allocate a long term source of funding to help landlords and renters combat bed bug infestations.

MTO is working on the bed bug issue at the state level as well. Meron Kahssai, an MTO Healthy Homes Organizer, has been appointed to the Illinois Subcommittee on Bed Bugs, a subcommittee of the Illinois Structural Pest Control Advisory Council. MTO will serve on this subcommittee as the voice of renters and will provide the necessary insight on the plight of renters to the other members of the state’s bed bug subcommittee. The goal of this subcommittee is to create a report with recommendations to the IL General Assembly on the prevention, management, and control of bed bugs which include recommendations on an educational campaign, proper transport and disposal of bed bug infested materials, and best practices of treatment and eradication.

Tenants who have dealt with bed bugs are encouraged to join MTO’s bed bug committee. This committee is open to anyone who is interested in serving the need of renters affected by bed bugs by pushing policies for both subsidized and market rate renters. Please contact Meron Kahssai at 773-292-4980 ext. 229, if interested.

Bed bugs will be the topic of discussion at the January 20th Tenant Congress meeting at the Chicago Urban League (4510 S. Michigan). Following a presentation on bed bugs, the floor will be open for a question and answer session. This meeting is open to the public.

Radon – FAQ

What is radon?
Radon is a radioactive, colorless, odorless, dense, tasteless noble gas, occurring naturally in soil.

How does radon get into homes?
Radon gas forms naturally in the soil in the Midwest. When the gas is produced, it simply rises up through the ground and is released into the natural environment.
However, when homes are built in or on soil emitting radon, instead of the gas rising up through dense soil, radon gas chooses the path of least resistance – normally through the floors or wall of the first level of the home – the basement. Depending on how the home was built and how ventilated the basement is, levels of radon can fluctuate.

Why is radon dangerous to human beings?
Radon has been classified as carcinogenic by the US EPA. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer – first being smoking. People who are exposed to both radon gas and smoke (first or second-hand) have a multipled risk of developing lung cancer.
Most radon-induced lung cancers occur from low and medium dose exposures in people’s homes.

Why are basements the most likely place to find radon gas? Why not in my second floor apartment?
Radon gas comes from decay of radioactive substances that are ubiquitous in the Midwestern soil. Because basements and first floor units are most often the first point of contact between soil (the source of radon gas) and the building, this is where radon normally enters the building.
Radon gas is also far more dense than “air.” Helium is lighter and less dense than air and therefore balloons filled with it fly away and up into the sky if not held down. Radon is heavier than air. For that reason, it sinks below lighter “air” to remain in our basements and lower level units. The more time someone spends in a unit/basement that has radon gas, the more exposure that person receives.

How do I know if my family and I are being exposed to radon gas?
If you live in the basement or first floor of a building, it is likely that you are being exposed to radon gas. The risk goes up if the building was poorly built, is poorly maintained and/or is poorly ventilated. There is no safe level of radon but minimizing exposure can reduce you and your family’s risk of lung cancer.
If you live in a second floor unit or higher, it is unlikely that you and your family are being exposed to significant levels of radon in your home.
The only way to know for sure is to test your living space(s).

Is there a test for radon?
Yes. Tenants, landlords, and homeowners have an easy and affordable option to test the level of radon in their home. Air Chek Inc. has sold over 4,000,000 radon tests worldwide. The Illinois Department of Public Health referrals for the test kit get the customer a major discount, which normally costs $14.95.
Those interested in purchasing the radon test can access the discount by phone, online, or through the mail. With the discount, each kit is $6.95. Call 800.247.2435 and ask for the Illinois discount or go online to il.radon.com for online or mailing instructions. Each test kit ordered includes the testing kit itself, testing instructions, shipping to and back, cost of lab work and reporting of results to you.