Delfin Diaz, a Chicago lead inspector, can tell whether lead-ridden paint is being exposed by pointing the barrel of a measure that looks like a gun against a surface. (Photo by Josh Hawkins)

Driving up to the apartment, Chicago lead inspector Delfin Diaz can tell the building is in poor condition. He points out the Irving Park neighborhood is gentrifying, and many of the other homes are spiffed up and have new windows. But the windows on this mustard-colored brick building, built in 1920, are covered with a film, and their edges are thick with layers of paint.

The building’s door is propped open with a brick. When Diaz knocks on the apartment door, a short Mexican woman tells him, in Spanish and in no uncertain terms, that the child who lives there did not get lead poisoning from the apartment. He nods. The child was tested at a local clinic and found to have a high blood lead level, and the law requires that city inspectors try to find the source of the exposure.

Diaz tells the woman that he understands her family is frightened that the discovery of lead will upset their landlord. But he needs to check it out and politely pushes his way inside.

The apartment smells of cleaning spray. The living room’s bare wood floors are spotless, and the furniture is covered in plastic. The walls are decorated with posters of roses in plastic gold-colored frames. A young woman comes out of a bedroom carrying a chubby boy, about 18 months old, and two steps behind her is a 3-year-old. The woman is the mother of the toddler, whose lead level is slightly elevated. She carries a folded copy of the report from the clinic and shows it to Diaz.

The toddler immediately goes to an open front window. Outside, it is raining, and the boy watches the big raindrops hit the ground. “That is the ideal scenario for how he could have been poisoned,” Diaz says. “Eighty percent of the problems are old windows and old porches.” He discovers that the lead level on the windowsills is extremely high.

Despite progress over the past decade, for families in Chicago like the one whose apartment is being inspected by Diaz, lead poisoning remains one of the top environmental health concerns for children. And it’s much more serious a problem here than anywhere else in the country.

In seven of Chicago’s 77 community areas, more than 20 percent of the children screened had elevated lead levels in 2002, according to Chicago Department of Public Health data. The city’s overall rate is 11 percent, the state’s is 6 percent and the country’s is 2.2 percent.

The most-affected areas in Chicago were all poor and on the South and West sides of the city.

And these numbers might be undercounted. In late August, a federal judge ruled that Illinois’ Medicaid program violated federal law by not giving 600,000 children the proper preventative screenings, including lead tests. Since children participating in Medicaid come from poor families that often live in dilapidated buildings, they are most at risk for lead poisoning.

Community advocates say low-income families continue to feel as though the discovery of lead in their homes puts them in an unsavory position. High levels of lead can cause physical symptoms such as nausea, comas or even death. But even small amounts of lead in a child’s system can cause irreversible brain damage, making their acquisition of knowledge slow and causing them to be hyperactive.

Parents, advocates say, do not want their children to be harmed or have their potential dimmed. But the price of fixing the problem can be daunting.

Homeowners often can’t afford it, and renters sometimes have trouble getting their landlords to get the work done. Activists say the presence of lead in a home is especially hard for families of undocumented immigrants. Not only has an affordable housing crunch made it difficult to find reasonably priced apartments, but they also are wary of any type of intervention by authorities. This is underscored when Diaz inspects the apartment.

When he enters the kitchen, the older woman turns from a big pot of rice on the stove and starts at him again. She insists there is no way the boy got the lead from the home. “There are five families living here,” she says, “and we need this place to live.”

In the 20 years since Diaz began his work as a lead inspector, he says the lead situation has gotten markedly better for a number of reasons. A concerted effort by public health officials and community organizations have made parents better educated about the damage lead can do, causing them to take it more seriously, he says.

Along with gentrification has come renovation of old structures, doing away with some lead problems. And the city no longer forces property owners to completely get rid of lead, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“We try to tell them that all they need is elbow grease and plastic,” says Anthony Amato, the city’s supervisor of lead inspectors. “What we say now is, ‘Let’s manage lead by getting rid of the hazards.’ Completely removing lead was cost prohibitive. The landlords couldn’t afford to do it.”

Two-thirds of the 2,280 Chicago property owners cited for violations in 2003 complied within 30 days, or as soon as the weather permitted, according to city officials. But 570 landlords had to be referred to an administrative court. Anne Evens, director of the city’s lead prevention program, says, in some cases, prosecuting a landlord can take more than a year.

Raveese Gladney, whose daughter Jessica Chess is now 5, says the time between the discovery of a child with an elevated blood lead level and the city forcing a landlord to fix the problems can be excruciating for parents.

When Jessica was 3, she took the lead test required for preschool. Two days later, the doctor told Gladney her daughter’s lead level was 54.5—well above the 10 threshold, the higheset level still considered safe. “I was so upset,” she says. “I didn’t know where to go.” Gladney says she understood the dangers of lead. To bring down the lead levels, her daughter took medication three times a day.

Soon after Gladney’s daughter was diagnosed, the city’s lead inspector came out to examine the family’s apartment. The inspector found the windows filled with lead paint. Gladney was given instructions on how to wipe down the windowsills, and the city sent a letter to the owner of the building, Mercedes Reyes.

As far as Gladney knows, the landlord didn’t respond to the letter until the city threatened more than a year later to bring her to court. Then, Gladney says Reyes hired a painter to scrape off the paint around the windows and repaint. Reyes didn’t respond to interview requests.

Between the time Gladney discovered the lead paint and the time Reyes removed it, Gladney kept the house “spic and span” and had Jessica, her only child, wash her hands regularly.

Then, when her lease came up, Gladney got a shock. Her landlord told her to move. “I am sure it is because of the lead,” she says. Gladney moved into a building owned by her aunt down the block. This time, though, she refused to move in until an inspector made sure her new place didn’t have any hazards.

Gladney says her daughter seems to be doing fine. But she is worried about the consequences down the road. She can’t afford a private education, so she desperately wants her daughter to be able to test into either a magnet or classical school.

She says she’s praying Jessica’s elevated lead levels will not hinder her chances. “I still like to think that she has the same potential,” she says. “I hope I am right.”

is an associate editor for our sister publication, Catalyst Chicago.