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updated: 3/2/2014 1:33 PM

35 years later, suburban homes still have lead paint

Illinois high in lead poisoning rates; Kane County warns of dangers to children

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  • Lead can have long-lasting health effects when it is inhaled or ingested in large quantities. Removing the toxin from homes requires respirators, protective clothing and numerous safety precautions to ensure no ill effects occur for removers.

      Lead can have long-lasting health effects when it is inhaled or ingested in large quantities. Removing the toxin from homes requires respirators, protective clothing and numerous safety precautions to ensure no ill effects occur for removers.

  • Windows and door frames are the most problematic contact points for lead paint. The frequent surface friction turns the paint into lead dust that is easily inhaled.

      Windows and door frames are the most problematic contact points for lead paint. The frequent surface friction turns the paint into lead dust that is easily inhaled.
    courtesy of the Kane County Office of Community Reinvestment

  • Kane County offers financial assistance to property owners seeking to get a handle on their possible lead paint problems. Homes constructed before the federal ban on lead paint in 1978, such as this Elgin home, are most likely to be contaminated.

      Kane County offers financial assistance to property owners seeking to get a handle on their possible lead paint problems. Homes constructed before the federal ban on lead paint in 1978, such as this Elgin home, are most likely to be contaminated.
    courtesy of the Kane County Office of Community Reinvestment

  • Video: James Fuller on ABC7

 
 

Brannon Anderson is surrounded every day by the thing she fears the most. It's on the outside of her Geneva home, in the very dirt it sits on. It's inside the walls. And the entry points to her house -- doors and windows -- are particular sources of concern.

Most troubling of all, trace amounts of lead paint are inside her 2-year-old son.

She gives the boy, whom she asked not be named, special drops of cilantro oil to try to pull some of the lead from his blood, which is tested every three months.

So far, the lead content in the toddler's system hasn't risen to a level local health officials consider dangerous, but it is high enough to require frequent monitoring.

"It's definitely very disturbing and alarming," Anderson said. "We're thankful his level isn't that high because there's really not much that we can do about it."

That's because the Andersons are deeply tied to their home in Geneva's historic district. The home, built in 1898, is the source of their son's lead contamination.

Illinois has one of the highest rates of lead poisoning in the nation. And the Kane County Health Department lists childhood lead poisoning among its six biggest health threats to residents.

Nearly 1,500 Kane County children have some degree of lead poisoning. Within Kane County, Aurora and Elgin, two suburbs with a large stock of older homes, are the towns with the largest number of incidents of lead paint poisoning.

There is a wide variety in its severity, according to officials in the county's office of community reinvestment. Most children fall into the lowest "level of concern" standard set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there are more than 100 children with lead poisoning severe enough to trigger intervention by the health department.

An additional 60 local children have up to twice the amount of lead in their system that health officials believe can have long-term cognitive effects.

Those numbers pushed the county to create a $1.3 million needs-based grant program funded by federal dollars and local cash. The grants pay part or all of the cost to address household lead paint hazards. Only homeowners who earn less than set income amounts qualify for the program. For instance, the maximum income for a family of four is $58,900.

The Andersons make more than that but not enough to hire a contractor certified to remediate their lead problems. One estimate, Brannon Anderson said, put the cost of stripping just the lead paint on the exterior of the historic home at $60,000. Even that would still leave all the lead paint inside.

Instead, Brannon's husband, Chris, is doing the lead work himself. He is a contractor by trade, but he is not certified to handle lead. He researched the various methods to make his home safe, and he is now more than two years into his home improvement project.

He uses a slow chemical process that turns the paint into a goop rather than chipping it off. He wears a respirator mask and special clothes whenever he does the lead work, stripping down in the garage and showering when he's done. The clothes are kept in a plastic bag and washed in a separate machine from the rest of the household laundry.

"The prices are crazy for the professional work," Brannon Anderson said. "There is no way we could have afforded to buy the house if we had to have a professional come out. But it makes me overly nervous about toxins. I try to keep the perspective that we all probably grew up with lead poisoning."

Getting the lead out

Most of the remediation work Kane County oversees happens in two ZIP codes, 60505 and 60120. That alone explains much of Kane County's struggles with lead.

Located on the east sides of Aurora and Elgin, the ZIP codes are among the oldest and most densely populated in the county. Both cities partner with the county in making the lead remediation grants available.

Sarosh Saher, a senior planner with Elgin, said the city created a residential program more than 25 years ago because officials knew lead paint was a problem that wouldn't solve itself. About $200,000 is used to tackle 10 to 15 projects a year. Only some of those projects involve lead remediation, and that's only started within the past few years.

"Over the years, a lot of property owners have just simply painted over the lead," Saher said. "It's not until someone comes in for a major rehab that the lead hazard is discovered and opened up. It's not an issue many people think of as still being a problem, but any house built before 1978 could still have lead."

There is no full accounting of exactly how many homes in Kane County are that old. What is known is that generally children less than 6 years old are most susceptible to lead poisoning. Their height and general curiosity makes it far more likely they will ingest or inhale some form of lead paint or lead dust.

There are about 48,000 children younger than 6 in Kane County. About 14,000 of them have been tested for lead poisoning either because of illness or because a screening by a doctor revealed a child lived in a high-risk home.

Heavy metal

Lead is a neurotoxin when ingested, and it has been linked to attention deficit disorder, hearing loss, high blood pressure, aggressive behavior, potential long-term impact to IQ and poor school performance.

For many years, the standard for classifying a child as having lead poisoning was 10 micrograms per deciliter in the child's blood. The CDC recently lowered that threshold, saying concentration as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter is a "level of concern."

Children with elevated levels of lead in their blood receive top priority in Kane County's remediation program. In the not quite two years of the program, the county has assisted 33 homeowners. All but two of those homes were in Aurora or Elgin. The county spends about $10,000 per home.

Scott Berger, who oversees the lead program for the county, said officials are doing as much remediation as funding allows.

"When we put our initial proposal together for the lead program, we were ranked No. 2 in the state for worst lead poisoning," Berger said. "We are the only county in the metro area that has two of the oldest communities, two of the original satellite cities within our jurisdiction. So the fact that we are now ranked third indicates we do have folks on top of this, and the hazard is being addressed."

The troubling thought that stays with Brannon Anderson is how would she address her son's situation if the next blood test shows even more lead in his system. The nightmare of possible brain damage to her son is constantly pitted against the desire to keep her dream house.

But if came down to it, Anderson knows what she will do.

"We'd have to move out," she said. "We'd have to hire someone to pull out all the trim. That's a scary thing to think about. I just can't imagine very many people can afford to hire someone to do that kind of work.

"You know, when people buy a place to remodel, they think, 'That's an old home; that's a lot of work.' They don't think, 'That's an old home; that's lead paint.'"

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