Chicago Children Not at Risk for Lead

Local physician says more awareness needed on subject


By J. Coyden Palmer

A local pediatrician says the risk for Chicago kids to contract lead poisoning from water at their school is nearly nonexistent. Dr. Oscar Diaz, said children are most at risk of getting lead poisoning from paint manufactured before 1980 then they are from water. Diaz spoke exclusively with the Crusader on June 1 after an article in last week’s edition told the story of how Tanner School on the South Side was bringing in bottled water for staff and students after high lead levels were found in the drinking water.

Diaz, who has been practicing in the Chicago area for over 20 years, says the children at Tanner are more than likely not going to suffer from lead poisoning. He said the number of cases of lead poisoning in the United States has dropped dramatically because of better education and changes in technology. He said kids are most at risk of contracting lead in their bloodstream by ingesting paint from rehabbed buildings where workers just painted over old paint without removing it first.

“My guess is that in the end they are not going to find high amounts of lead in the pipes that are distributing water to Tanner school,” said Dr. Diaz with confidence. “I understand that after this investigation was completed they found just a couple of schools with a higher level of lead in the water supply. But what we need to know is how high. If they had a specific lead level in the bloodstream then it would be reason for concern.”

Diaz went on to say that in the past 25 years the accepted amount of lead levels in the bloodstream has dropped dramatically. Lead levels are measured in micrograms per liter. In 1989, if you had 20 mg of lead in your blood it was still considered normal, now it has dropped to 5 mg. On average labs are seeing levels around 1.9 mg, according to Diaz, which is almost nonexistent.

“I haven’t seen any cases of lead poisoning in the Chicago area in the last 10 years,” said Diaz. “The reason for that is the public awareness and the paint chips in the old buildings which contained lead prior to 1978 has been removed. It doesn’t mean we still can’t see cases, but the chances are much less and parents need to understand the greatest risk of kids getting lead poisoning still comes from paint, not the water supply.”

Diaz said kids start getting screened for lead between nine and 15 months regardless of where they live. He said another screening takes place between four and six years of age at his clinic.

Diaz said he still drinks tap water himself in his home and believes school officials at CPS may have overreacted a bit in the situation at Tanner. He said more than likely the situation at Tanner is just a matter of changing the filters in the water supply or at most the pipes, but he does not believe anyone will be in danger.

However, Dr. Diaz does caution people who have moved into rehabilitated buildings. He said many of those buildings still have the old paint underneath the new layer and if the paint chips fall onto the floor where young kids play, the child could ingest the paint and get sick.

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