“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

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.

Healthy Homes Mean Health Equity – A Message from the Executive Director

I just returned from the National Healthy Homes Conference as well as the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative meeting in Denver.  The meetings reaffirm MTO’s commitment to involve ourselves and help shape the agenda of this growing movement.  Some of the thoughts that I took away from the meeting are as follows.

This movement calls upon us to think differently and to look at the broader picture.  It challenges organizations and governmental agencies to get out of their silos and to become “yes we can” facilitators.  For instance, one agency described a scenario where a home owner had dangerous lead hazards in their home.   The house also had a leaky roof.  Because of funding restrictions, the agency had to tell the resident that before the lead hazard could be abated the roof needed to be fixed.  Under a green and healthy approach, an agency would look to use green and energy efficiency resources to repair the roof and simultaneously abate the lead.  A contractor would be resolving several issues at one time.  This is efficient and in the long run, saves money.

Another part of looking at the broader picture means collaborating with other groups.  Collaborations allow agencies to bring together specialized skills and focus on solving larger problems.  Strong partnerships build connections between issues, increase resources, and create a vision for solving the nation’s larger housing problems.

A few statistics demonstrate the need for a Healthy Homes approach.   According the World Health Organization two-thirds of all deaths are caused by non-communicable diseases and 25% can be addressed environmentally.  The other important fact is that between 18% and 30 % of green house gases are the result of residential housing.  Making our homes greener can have a huge impact on the environment.

The biggest challenge facing us in this effort is financing.  In its budget cutting craze, the federal government is looking to cut its investments in healthy homes.  Conference participants suggested looking to Medicaid and insurance companies for financing because if we can prevent these home based illnesses in the long run it will create huge cost savings for these institutions.  Most everyone agreed that in the end, the federal government must take a leading role in financing these changes.

Finally, for me the biggest reason to support a green and healthy homes framework is that it promotes health equity.  Promoting wellness is far more cost effective that treating illness.  If we look at who is living in housing which is poorly maintained, in bad neighborhoods that often contain health hazards, we will see it is low-come families, often times families of color.   It is the same population which disproportionately suffers from such environmentally related health issues such as lead poisoning and asthma. By making our homes greener and healthier, we will improve everyone’s health and thus in the end it will raise the quality of life for everyone.

PHOTOS: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Chicago Rental Housing

Chicago’s current 311-reporting process does not work to protect renters against their slumlords. A mandatory rental housing inspection program with strong enforcement power is imperative for Chicago and the health of its communities. Below is a brief photographic summary of the conditions MTO witnesses on a regular basis.

Low-income renters experience higher rates of disease than their higher income counterparts. In my work as a healthy homes organizer, it has become strikingly clear why.

We have entered hundreds of apartments over the past few years and in them,  seen deplorable housing conditions that were the direct cause of a child’s disease which brought us to that apartment in the first place. For some unconscionable reason, the landlord chose not to invest the money needed to maintain the apartments in a livable condition and the city was often unresponsive to calls for help from the parents of these sick children.

Because of decades of activism, the City of Chicago has set up a system that is helpful to parents whose children have been lead poisoned. But – children are still the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ in the vast majority of cases. There is no program in place to prevent kids from lead poisoning and in particular, the most vulnerable children suffer.

There are even fewer controls in place for other healthy homes issues such as cockroach and rodent infestations, and mold problems. As of right now, there is little help in place for renters enduring unhealthy housing and absentee landlords. These conditions can be particularly harmful to children with asthma and other respiratory ailments. In most cases, especially in today’s economy, parents do not have the option to pick up and move. Instead, they make the difficult choice of having a roof over their family’s head or watching their kids suffer from their illnesses that are exacerbated right in their own home.

There needs to be programs with strong enforcement mechanisms for these families to turn to in order to correct these grossly negligent – and sometimes criminal – building code violations. Children living in unhealthy housing will suffer the effects of environmental injustice for the rest of their lives. This fact has been repeatedly proven and documented in numerous medical and public health academic journals. A recent Shriver Center report demonstrates how socioeconomically-integrated, safe, affordable housing offers children access to good schools, stability, and the health necessary to achieve their potential.

MTO is calling on Chicagoans to support a mandatory inspection program that would identify healthy homes issues and force landlords to maintain their buildings according to the Chicago building code requirements.

Sign the CHHIP Petition

 

If you are having Healthy Homes issues in your apartment, contact MTO’s Hotline for assistance at 773-292-4988, or notify your landlord directly online at Squared Away Chicago.  

If you would like to join the CHHIP campaign, contact Sheila at 773-292-4980 ext 231, or via email at sheilas@tenants-rights.org.

Warning: Some of the following photos are graphic and may be disturbing for sensitive viewers.

 

 

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.

Lead – FAQ

What is lead poisoning?
Lead is a poison that impacts everyone, especially children ages 6 years and younger. Lead can harm the brain, nerves, kidneys, digestive system, hearing and cause muscle and joint problems. Even at low levels, lead can affect cognitive abilities causing a lower IQ and learning disabilities. The effects of lead on the body and brain are irreversible.

How is lead related to your home? flaking-paint-window
Lead was used in paint prior to 1978. Most homes built prior to 1978 have some lead in them. Over 70% of homes in Chicago were built before 1978. Paint made prior to 1950 was especially high in lead. The older the home, is the greater the potential for lead hazards. Invisible lead dust, not paint chips, are the main source of lead poisoning. Windows and porches are the most likely sources of lead hazards in your home.

Are there other sources of lead around my home?
Yes. Soil in and around your home may contain lead. In older homes, some water pipes may contain lead.

What if I have lead paint in my apartment?
Most apartments built prior to 1978 have lead paint. Lead paint becomes hazardous when it is disturbed by friction, impact and moisture which causes the paint to break down into dust. If you suspect your apartment has a lead hazard (ie. chipping paint) call the Renter’s Hotline for more information. If there is a child aged 6 or under residing in the home, you may enroll in the free Safe and Healthy Homes program for personalized information on how to prevent lead poisoning in your home.

What should I do if there is a lead hazard in my unit?
Inform the landlord. Call the Renter’s Hotline [link]. Call the city of Chicago’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program at 312.747.LEAD[5323]. You may request an inspection. The Department of Health has several programs that may provide financial assistance to landlords or homeowners seeking to replace old windows.
If the landlord refuses to make repairs and old paint is pulling away from the wall, cracking, chipping or peeling and it is a code violation, you can give the landlord a 14-day written notice to reduce your rent. See “Apartment Repairs and Conditions

Does my landlord have to inform me if there is lead in my apartment?
Under federal law, at the start of a tenancy, the landlord must provide tenants with a lead disclosure form that details any known lead hazard in your unit or the common areas and a copy of the EPA booklet “Protect Your Family from Lead in your Home“. Under 2004 Childhood Lead Prevention Act, the landlord must also post a notice if a lead hazard has been found in another unit. That notice must remain posted until all documented hazards are properly repaired.

If there are renovations or repairs being done in my building, does that expose my family or me to lead?
Maybe. If your home was built before 1978 [find out here: www.newschicago.org], your landlord or the contractors (s)he has hired must follow the EPA’s Renovation, Repair, and Painting rule, which came into effect on April 22nd, 2010.

Watch this video to know what precautions contractors are now required to take if working in a building built before 1978. Contractors must be certified and must follow specific procedures to prevent possible lead contamination.

Homeowners and Landlords – There is money available to make repairs to lead hazards, including for window replacement. Income qualification can be based on tenants’ income. Learn more here.

Learn more about MTO’s free lead poisoning prevention program here.

Still can’t find the answer? Send us your questions. Please allow several days for a response.

To speak with a Healthy Homes Organizer – call Meg Borneman 773.292.4980 ext. 231 or email meg@tenants-rights.org