Hilary Godwin, a Northwestern Chemistry professor, plays with her son, Jake, who had a slightly elevated blood lead level when he was tested at 9 months. (Photo by Frank Pinc)

In Hilary Godwin’s large office at Northwestern University’s Technical Building, pictures of her round toddler lean against science text books. A spunky looking woman with curly hair and blue eyes, she tries to explain in everyday English her work on lead. But she is most animated when describing how the issue hit home—literally.

Godwin, a chemistry professor who studies lead, says, because she’s familiar with the risks, she pushed her doctor to give her son a lead screening at 9 months. Otherwise, she believes the doctor would have waited until Jake went to preschool. Since Godwin lives in a part of Evanston determined to be at high risk for lead poisoning, it is legally required that he be tested “routinely”—but how routinely is not defined.

To Godwin’s surprise, Jake’s lead level was 12—slightly higher than what doctors consider safe. While upset, Godwin says she’s glad that it was caught early on. The younger the child, the more damage lead poisoning can do, and, if the source of the lead is not determined and removed, the poisoning will continue.

Anita Weinberg, director of the ChildLaw Policy Institute at Loyola University, says that once a child’s learning is impaired it is too late. Although steps can be taken to lessen the effects, lead damage cannot be reversed.

Jake was exposed to paint dust left around the home and in the soil after the renovation of the family’s 1920s Colonial house, completed before Jake was born.

Godwin says her experience shows that children from middle-and upper-class families are not immune to lead poisoning, even though it is most prevalent among poor children living in deteriorating homes. In fact, the No. 1 risk factor for lead exposure is the age of the home where a child lives.

“You always hear horror stories about children poisoned after renovation,” says Weinberg.

In the five collar counties, the average year homes were built was 1971, according to the U.S. Census. That is before the law was passed to ban the use of lead in paint.

Godwin points out that many in her neighborhood and in other wealthy suburbs don’t get their children tested, and doctors might not push for it, thinking there is not much risk. In Chicago suburbs, 6 percent of children under 6 years old got screened for lead in 2002, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. “If you think about it, people on the North Shore probably can come up with the money to fix the problem if they have one, so it is sad if the only reason they don’t is that they don’t know about it,” Godwin says.

Her experience also shows that parents with good incomes who live in suburbs not overwhelmed by the lead issue are better equipped to deal with the problem. But getting rid of lead is costly and can be a major burden, even for wealthy families.

Godwin says no medical treatment is required for children with low levels. But she scheduled an appointment to get Jake another blood test. Meanwhile, she went home and tried to find the source of the lead. Once Evanston lead inspectors came out and discovered the sources, she took action. “I made the painters come out there the next day and clean up,” she says. “I went crazy cleaning everything. I had a sign at my door telling people to take off their shoes to keep lead out of Jake.”

A couple of weeks later, Jake went back to the doctor for another blood test. This time his blood lead level was 20.

“I was so frustrated,” Godwin says. “As a parent you know you want to give your child every advantage. And here I knew about this problem, I studied this and I couldn’t protect my child.”

Illinois requires that regular blood lead screenings be done only on children living in high-risk ZIP codes, a designation determined by the age of the housing, the number of poor families and the prevalence of children previously found to have elevated blood lead levels.

Parents of children in low-risk ZIP codes are supposed to be asked by their pediatricians a series of questions—the assessment designed to find out whether the child might have been exposed. If the parent answers yes to any of the questions, a lead screening is supposed to be done.

But not all children in high-risk ZIP codes get regular lead tests, and a small percentage of those in low-risk ZIP codes have their lead levels tested, shows an analysis of Illinois Department of Public Health data by The Chicago Reporter and Chicago Parent.

DuPage and McHenry counties have no high-risk ZIP codes, while suburban Cook County has 15. Of the suburban children who were tested in 2002—the latest year for which data are available—3 percent had lead levels 10 and above.

Cheryl Wycoff, the administrator of the state’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program, estimates that about a quarter of all children in the state should be tested. She knows this is not happening. But she says she does not have the staff to pinpoint specific areas where less testing is done. Nor do they have the resources to hold doctors and local health officials accountable.

There is a space on school physical forms that asks doctors to report the results of a lead assessment or screening. Yet Wycoff says the law is ambiguous about whether school officials can exclude children from school without the screening, in the same way they can for children who lack immunizations.

School officials say they mostly rely on doctors. Still, many doctors of children in high-risk ZIP codes often won’t do the blood test until asked on school physical forms. Advocates say this uneven approach creates the possibility that some children won’t be diagnosed until the damage is done.

Helen Binns, a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hospital, who specializes in treating children with lead, did a study a couple of years ago on how well the assessment questionnaire in Illinois worked. She found it identified about 75 percent of the children in low-risk ZIP codes with high lead levels. “Hopefully, you won’t miss your highest ones,” she says.

On top of that, Binns and other experts say they are sure that some doctors don’t bother with assessments. “There are so many issues to address at a pediatrician’s visit that sometimes things get left out,” Binns says.

Weinberg of the ChildLaw Policy Institute says advocates would like schools to be more diligent in making sure children are screened. She and others also want hardware stores to take more responsibility in making sure people know about lead and are cognizant of it when renovating.

Once Godwin found out her home had hazards, she tried to figure out the best way to deal with them. To completely rid her home of lead, she was told, it would cost $60,000.

Instead, she and her husband decided to mitigate. For the contaminated soil, she put plastic sheeting around her house. For the windows, she had lead-certified painters strip and repaint the windowsills and put plastic runners around them.

Even without abatement, she spent about $6,000, including a couple of hundred dollars to have her house certified by a lead inspector. She says she knows that the task of raising a young child can be overwhelming and tiring. Environmental issues, she says, can seem abstract. But she stresses lead poisoning can be fixed. The last blood screening Jake, now 3, had showed 2.8 lead level, which is her area’s average.

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