Two years ago, Jessica Chess seemed like a perfectly normal 3-year-old, when tests revealed that she had a dangerously high blood lead level. (Photo by Josh Hawkins)

In many Illinois towns and suburbs, the discovery of a child with lead poisoning means a swift response and plenty of help with cleaning up hazards.

In Chicago, though the inspectors usually come quickly, getting government money to clean up is difficult, if not impossible, an investigation by The Chicago Reporter and Chicago Parent has found.

Recent headlines have pointed to lead as a problem in some imported toys and furniture, but the real problem remains lead in paint. Lead was taken out of paint in 1977—yet, in old housing, lead-ridden paint remains underneath new coats.

Sweet to taste, lead is dangerous. It can cause permanent brain damage and, at its worst, even lead to a child’s death.

But fixing lead is expensive. It costs an average of $10,000 to clean one apartment or house, a process that often entails replacing windows and scraping off paint and repainting.

And there are supposed to be funds available to help, especially for people with low incomes. But an examination of the available money and where it is spent shows:

* There is still not enough money. Just in Chicago, it is estimated that 88,000 homes have lead in them. It would cost at least $1 billion to fix. But, each year, the city has a couple of million dollars to spend on cleanup.

* Although Chicago has the highest percentage of lead-poisoned children in the country, it does not get a proportional amount of funding to deal with the problem. This leaves families in poor city neighborhoods waiting for months for help.

* Cumbersome procedures mean the money available for cleanup is often not spent.

While other monies are available for education and screening, Cook County and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are the two major sources of funding for cleaning up lead hazards in Chicago and the suburbs.

When it comes to cleaning up, Chicago, which has 70 percent of the state’s children who tested positive for higher lead levels, doesn’t get its share. For example, 40 percent of $34 million in HUD money that has been spent helping landlords and homeowners statewide since 2000 went to Chicago property owners. In addition, although Chicago is home to 93 percent of the lead-poisoned children in Cook County, the city gets only 74 percent of the county’s lead money.

Government officials offer many explanations.

Experts and lawmakers say much of the problem has to do with an “ask and ye shall receive” approach to funding, where more aggressive government entities gain a greater share. It is also a result, they say, of politics overshadowing public health realities.

HUD and Cook County officials disagree. “You are making a judgment here that a child in a smaller town is not as important as a child in Chicago,” says Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman. “Lead is everywhere, and just because someone lives in a small town doesn’t mean they should not have access to help.”

But, even when dollars are available, Cook County funds are not distributed quickly enough, advocates say.

That means some homes and apartments aren’t being fixed, and more children are being exposed to lead, says Anita Weinberg, director of Loyola University’s ChildLaw Policy Institute, who recently co-chaired a summit to develop a strategic plan for Chicago. “I have a problem with the money just sitting there,” she says.

County officials say their application process is complex, and that they’re taking their time in handing out the funding because they want to make sure it is spent right.

But Larry Suffredin, a Cook County commissioner who represents the far northeast end of Chicago and some north suburbs, says he is so fed up with the county holding onto the money that he may introduce an ordinance to force the issue.

“With the county, everything goes as slow as molasses,” Suffredin says. “This could save a generation of kids, and we just aren’t doing it, and it is driving me crazy.”

Jessica Chess, now 5, walks with her preschool friends. Her mother is hopeful that the lead poisoning will not have a lasting effect on her potential. (Photo by Josh Hawkins)

Community activists have complained to Suffredin that not one property owner on the Chicago side of his district has received any county money—or federal money, for that matter—for lead control.

Meanwhile, Evanston, an adjoining suburb with much less of a lead problem, has received enough money in the past two years to clean up the homes of qualified property owners—and do prevention work, as well.

In 2003, 1,092 Evanston children were screened for lead and 86 had elevated lead levels. During that time, 13 properties were cleaned up with government money, which is reserved for low-income families.

Evanston “jumped at the chance” to get the county money, says Jay W. Terry, the director of Evanston’s Health and Human Services Department.

“I am never comfortable with Chicago versus. Evanston questions,” he says. “Hopefully, it’s not either-or. Do I wish there were more funds available so that Chicago would have enough to take care of its problem? Yes. But that’s a political question. All I know is that we were given the opportunity to apply and we did.”

Meanwhile, in the city’s North Side Rogers Park neighborhood, tests found that 153 children had elevated blood levels in 2002, and not one property owner received any financial help from the government to clean up hazards.

Her voice quivering in anger, Monica Dillon, a community health nurse at the Howard Area Community Center in East Rogers Park, says she has seen families in her neighborhood destroyed because a child was exposed to lead.

“The [county] could have used this money to really start eradicating lead here and in other Chicago neighborhoods,” she says. “I think [the Cook County money] is just being mishandled.”

Dillon notes that, while gentrification is taking hold, Rogers Park is home to one of the most diverse populations in the city, with many immigrant families struggling financially.

About a third of Rogers Park’s residents are black, a third white and a third Latino, according to the 2000 Census. The median household income is $32,444, below the citywide median of $38,625.

Dillon says many of these families feel trapped because they don’t have the money to fix the problem—or are renters who can’t persuade their landlords to do the work.

And Loyola’s Weinberg and Anne Evens, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s lead program, stress it’s not just the disparity in the county funding that troubles them, it also is the way the county has set up the program.

Both served on the advisory council that helped develop the application procedure and say that, throughout the process, they disagreed with certain stipulations.

For example, they thought that the distribution should be based on need, while officials wanted to see 50 percent given to Cook County suburbs.

Cook County has only recently gotten into the business of fixing lead hazards.

In 1993, the Illinois General Assembly abolished an outdated insurance system—the Torrens system, which set aside money from building sales to pay for possible title problems. About $35 million was left in the now-defunct Torrens Fund. After five years, the county concluded that about $7 million was needed for any future claims, but the rest could be spent.

In 1998, the legislature passed a law allowing Cook County to use the money to clean up lead.

Advocates celebrated the large pot of money. But, instead of devoting the entire $28 million to lead, the Cook County Board decided to put half in the county’s general fund—a move the law allowed but did not advocate.

In the end, the county was left with about $15 million for lead hazard control. It took until 2001 for officials to develop a spending plan. Since it went into effect in 2002, only about a third of the fund has been spent, cleaning up 186 properties.

Stephen A. Martin Jr., director of the Cook County Public Health Department, who used to run the county’s lead program, says the pace helps ensure the money is spent right.

A community organization or a municipality must submit a 40-page application on behalf of property owners in the area in order to get a grant from the Torrens Fund. It must include the affected address, the contractor that will do the work, what needs to be done and the time it will take.

Evanston and Oak Park, Martin says, are the only Cook County suburbs with the resources—knowledge about the work, connections with contractors and inspection staffs—to put together an application. This leaves one qualified nonprofit organization, the Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) of Cook County, to develop all the information necessary to apply on behalf of residents in all the other suburbs.

“CEDA can only do so many homes,” Martin says.

Anne Evens, director of the City of Chicago’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, says the lack of resources for fixing lead problems is apparent in the neighborhoods with the worst problems. (Photo by Josh Hawkins)

In about 45 percent of Chicago’s neighborhoods, more than 100 children a year are found to have high lead levels. The scope of the problem and the limited amount of money the city gets for lead hazard control leaves officials in a difficult position. They must decide whether to target the most-affected areas, or open the program up to any property owner who qualifies.

Over the past four years, Chicago officials have targeted communities on the South and West sides of the city, which is one of the reasons Rogers Park and much of the North Side have been neglected. Realizing that property owners in some communities were being left out, Evens says, the targeted areas are being broadened this year.

But the gap between the need and the problem is still vividly apparent, even in the targeted areas.

Take West Englewood, Englewood, New City and Auburn Gresham, four adjoining neighborhoods on the Southwest Side. During the past decade, the city has demolished many of the abandoned houses in these neighborhoods, leaving vacant lots covered with weeds and wildflowers.

The buildings left standing are a mix of wood-framed and bungalow homes, two- and three-flats and bigger courtyard buildings with multiple units. At a glance, these buildings seem well-kept, with carefully planted flowers and trimmed lawns. But most of the houses are old. The paint is peeling, the siding is loose, the cement stairs are cracked.

On one afternoon, children are everywhere, riding bikes, throwing basketballs against the steps and hanging off nearby jungle gyms.

Because of the crumbling housing, those children are more likely to have lead poisoning.

In 2002, 22 percent of the children screened in those four neighborhoods had elevated lead levels in their blood, compared with rates of 11 percent citywide and 6 percent statewide.

Because of the persistently high rates, the city targeted these neighborhoods. The attention resulted in 227 homes in those areas being cleaned up with government funds since 1999, according to the Chicago Parent-Chicago Reporter analysis. That means about one home has been cleaned up for every 10 times a child was found with lead poisoning.

Josie Chico, one of two social workers for Children’s Home and Aid Society doing lead outreach on the Southwest Side, says while the targeted money has been helpful, it is “just a small step.” The nonprofit agency runs a lead prevention program in six South Side neighborhoods.

Chico says almost all of the landlords and homeowners she has met are within the income guidelines to receive a lead hazard control grant. And the waiting list is often a year long. Chico talks glowingly of one landlord who qualified but wasn’t able to get a grant because the money ran out.

“She went into debt to get some hallway windows fixed,” she says. “It’s just a little thing, but she cared so much that she went into debt. Most don’t.”

Parents are told to keep their homes as clean as possible while waiting and to make sure their children constantly have a stomach full of nutritious food. Because lead latches on to children’s bones, like nutrients such as calcium, experts agree that poisoning is more severe when a child’s diet is poor.

This is an undue burden on families, many of whom are stressed already by parenting and poverty, says Deborah Woodside, a program director for Children’s Home and Aid. “Hearing that your child is lead-poisoned is very upsetting and frightening,” she says. “Then we start telling them all the things they need to do, and they just give up. Good nutritious food is more expensive, and some of these parents do not have the money for it. So what are they supposed to do? They feel like they have no control.”

In many ways, the approach to lead-control funding is similar to that of many other issues: Lawmakers who represent suburban and rural areas don’t want every cent of government funding to go to cities, which, because of their high concentrations of people, are bound to have a higher concentration of problems.

To ensure all HUD funding doesn’t go to urban areas, need is not a top criterion for the federal grants. “The grants are awarded to people with well-developed plans and people who can do the work that they propose to do,” says HUD’s Sullivan.

Evens says she’s advocated to have the funds distributed based more on need, but it is difficult. “I know the Centers for Disease Control tried to take away lead funding for Alaska because there’s basically no lead there, but it wasn’t easy,” she says. “They had to fight to do it.”

And, to the federal government’s credit, Chicago has received more money in the past few years, and one of HUD’s temporary grant programs was awarded based on need.

In Illinois, the agency awards grants directly to the state government, as well as the cities of Chicago, Kankakee and Springfield; and St. Clair and Madison counties. The state uses its HUD grant to target counties without funding.

U.S. Rep. Jerry F. Costello, a downstate Democrat, says he supported HUD grants for St. Clair, which includes East St. Louis, and Madison counties, which lie in his district. Both have low-income areas that otherwise wouldn’t be able to do anything about lead.

Costello is sympathetic to Chicago’s situation. “The bottom line,” he says, “is that lead has not been a priority [for the Bush Administration or Congress]. Frankly, we don’t discuss it. We just pass the funding with the rest of the HUD budget. But it is a serious issue, and we need to get serious about addressing the problem.”

With the federal and county money barely tackling the lead hazards, local officials and advocates have taken it upon themselves to find ways to secure resources for property owners.

The city of Chicago puts none of its own money into lead hazard control, but does pay for lead inspectors and supervisors. Evens says most cities do the same.

Philadelphia, which put $1.5 million into lead hazard control last year, is an exception, she says. But, in Chicago, using city money for lead hazard control “is not a viable option, as the city’s budget has contracted,” Evens says.

After working for about two years, a group of advocates and city officials recently released a strategic plan to eliminate child lead poisoning as a public health problem in Chicago by 2010.

This mission mirrors one set by HUD for the nation. The first and most important part of the plan is to “leverage dollars to make housing safe.”

The plan directs the city to creatively examine all types of federal and state funding.

Rhode Island, for example, received a waiver to charge Medicaid for lead hazard control, according to the report.

But Weinberg, who authored the plan, says she’s most excited about the prospect of finding new money. The plan suggests investigating the New Markets Tax Credit, a federal program intended to increase investment in low-income property, and taxing the sale of paint, as California currently does.

Chicago also filed a lawsuit in September 2002, alleging that paint companies had created a “public nuisance.” But a judge dismissed the case in 2003, calling it an “effort to wrongly shift the responsibility for addressing potential hazards from property owners to a few selected former manufacturers.” The city is appealing the decision.

Rosemary Krimbel, senior counsel for the city law department, who prepared the lead lawsuit, says there is evidence that the paint companies knew early on that lead posed a threat, especially to children. But, as criticism increased, the lead industry organized an aggressive campaign to reassure the public that lead paint was not dangerous.

Bonnie Campbell, a Washington, D.C., attorney who’s representing the paint companies, says the city’s interpretation of the history is “misguided.” She says that the paint companies acted responsibly, sponsoring research about the effects of lead on children and then voluntarily adopting standards that called for its removal from paint in 1955, well before it was mandated by law.

Campbell says cities and states should focus their attention on the proven solutions—getting property owners to clean up deteriorating paint and targeting governmental resources to help them.

“The lawsuits have never helped one child, and they won’t be resolved fast,” she says. “The lawsuits are a distraction.”

But Krimbel says it’s too difficult and costly for property owners to truly get rid of lead. Most can only control its spread, which means the lead is still there and could become a problem in the future.

“It doesn’t make any sense for taxpayers to bear this burden when paint companies knew at the time lead was dangerous and manufactured it anyway,” Krimbel says. “They knew it would hurt people. They knew it would hurt children.”