Getting the lead out: city officials and neighborhood activists chip away at a huge problem | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Getting the lead out: city officials and neighborhood activists chip away at a huge problem

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It's been more than a year and a half since Maurci Jackson's daughter Maurissa was poisoned by eating lead-based paint. But as far as Jackson knows, her old landlord still hasn't removed all of the toxic paint from the apartment.

Maurissa Jackson, now three, underwent months of frightening and painful treatment and is in good shape. But, as the case against the landlord shows, the city's fight against lead-based paint has not been so successful. Activists say it takes the city too long to strip buildings of lead-based paint, and they blame the Daley administration, particularly the mayor, for not filling three key lead-abatement jobs in the health department.

"It's very frustrating, because it seems as though we have been struggling with the administration on this issue for years," says Ralph Scott, a housing organizer for the Rogers Park Tenants Committee, one of 21 community groups that make up the Lead Elimination Action Drive (LEAD). "This is a very serious health crisis. It's no time to tolerate the status quo."

That criticism is unfair, counter the mayor's health advisers, who contend that more children are being screened for lead poisoning under the Daley reign than ever before, and that further progress is being hampered by budget restraints. "The mayor and this administration are committed to this fight, but you have to understand the fiscal realities of the world in which we live," says Richard Sewell, deputy commissioner in the public health department. "We are facing state and federal cutbacks as well as demands for increased funding for everything from fighting AIDS to TB. Of course we would like to hire more people to fight lead poisoning. But considering it all, preserving the status quo is something you celebrate."

Both sides agree the problem is at a crisis point, particularly in older low-income neighborhoods on the city's south and west sides, where, according to city statistics, up to 25 poisonings per 1,000 children are recorded each year. The city banned the sale of lead-based paint in the 70s, but thousands of inhabited buildings still need to be stripped of it.

Anyone can be contaminated by inhaling dust from lead-based paint, but children are particularly at risk because they sometimes eat chunks of peeling paint. "Too much exposure can cause brain damage," says Scott. "This is very dangerous stuff. It can be ingested by eating lead chips or breathing the dust which is generated from crumbling paint that falls on the floor and is walked on."

Over the last two years Scott and other activists have been pressuring the Daley administration to educate people about the threat, inspect old buildings, and force landlords to remove the paint. In response Daley allocated about $650,000 in 1990 to hire more inspectors, educators, and lab technicians.

But activists say those efforts were not enough. "The problem is that the people were hired late in 1990, so we went a long time without their services and the city never spent all of $650,000 on lead-paint abatement," says Scott. "I don't know how they spent it, to tell you the truth. For all I know it just went into a general fund."

Eventually three educators and two inspectors were hired, but one of them left and another was fired. That left only two educators instead of three, and 26 inspectors instead of 27. The inspectors were also short a supervisor. In November the three vacancies were made permanent when Daley announced a citywide hiring freeze. "We intended to fill those vacancies, but we can't now that there is the hiring freeze," says Richard Sewell. "It's not just our department--it's across-the-board. The city is facing a shortage of funds, and cuts had to be made."

Last month the activists tried to slip around the freeze when their chief legislative ally, 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore, proposed an amendment that would have added money for the employees to the 1992 budget. But Daley's aldermanic allies buried Moore's amendment in committee, refusing to allow it even to come up for a vote. "When I tried to add this amendment to the budget, Mayor Daley ruled that I was out of order," says Moore. "When I tried to question that ruling, Daley refused to recognize me and had the meeting adjourned. I think it was pretty obvious that the mayor wanted to avoid a public vote on the matter. It would have looked pretty bad for his supporters to be made to vote against this cause."

Ironically, the city has been fairly successful in identifying and treating victims of lead poisoning, including Maurissa Jackson. "My daughter came up to me one day with a chunk of paint in her hand and she told me that she had eaten some," says Maurci Jackson. "I rushed her to the hospital and had her tested. They found that she had a high percentage of lead in her bloodstream and recommended immediate treatment."

Maurissa began getting two shots per day over a two-month period. "It was so horrible to have to watch this happen to a little girl," says Jackson. "I wouldn't wish this on anyone. She hated the shots, so they tried to inject her through an IV. But her hands would swell up, and they had to go back to the shots. Maurissa was so scared. It got to the point where when she saw a doctor in a white jacket, she got petrified. So far she has shown no horrible side effects, but you have to take the shots as a precaution anyway."

A few days after doctors discovered that Maurissa had been poisoned, the city dispatched inspectors to Jackson's apartment in Woodlawn. "That's the one good thing about the city program," says Jackson. "They don't mess around. When they get a report of a lead poisoning, they send out the inspectors."

Not surprisingly, the inspectors discovered large amounts of lead-based paint throughout the apartment. The city ordered the landlord to attend several hearings with health-department officials. But according to Jackson, the landlord never showed.

"He tried to remove the lead-based paint, but I don't think he did a very good job," she says. "He had people scrape the wall while two fans were blowing. That only blew the problem off the walls and into the air. That place has got to be as contaminated as ever. Eventually, we moved out."

Community activists charge that the city is far too lenient with problem landlords. "A landlord is supposed to meet with a city lawyer after he's found in violation," says Ralph Scott. "If he doesn't meet with the lawyer or take down the paint, he can be taken to court."

Yet the city rarely prosecutes. "We know of dozens of horror stories where the city does not force compliance with its own code," says Scott. "There was a building on the 1200 block of North Bosworth where a child had a severe case of blood poisoning. The city dropped the case, not because the lead-based paint had been removed--nobody knows if it was or wasn't--but because the family moved out. That's crazy! What happens to the next family that moves in?

"Then there was another building where the city ordered nine inspections--and still the lead paint wasn't removed. Why bother reinspecting if the landlord is not complying? They should just take him to court."

City officials insist that forcing compliance can be difficult. "We recognize that there are some awful delays," says Richard Sewell. "But going to court won't solve them. Once you go to court, you are subject to more continuances and more delays that are ordered by a judge. How does that solve anything? The courts are no answer."

He also points out that many inspectors, frustrated by their inability to force a landlord to remove lead-based paint, will inspect a building several times. "They're hoping that by being a persistent examiner they will force the landlord to remove the paint. It's not an ironclad guarantee, but it still offers some hope. In any event it's a little unfair to criticize us for being persistent with these second or third inspections."

Last month LEAD activists tried to smooth out differences with the administration during a meeting with Sewell and his boss, health commissioner Sheila Lyne. "They [the city officials] promised to come up with written standards for how long people have to properly clean up contaminated buildings," says Scott. "They said those standards would be completed by January 13, when they agree to meet with us again."

In the meantime the backlog of cases is certain to rise, because the state will soon mandate regular blood tests for children in high-risk neighborhoods. "It stands to reason that the more you screen, the more contaminated kids you're going to discover," says Scott. "Screening is important, but you also have got to get the source of poison out of the buildings."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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