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The link between lead poisoning and underperforming students

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?

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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.

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