By Patrick Forrest
A growing body of research is making it clear that the toxic legacy of lead has far more wide-ranging effects than previously known. Lingering dust from paint and deposits from old vehicle emissions continue to harm thousands of children in older industrial cities like Chicago.
Once an obscure academic specialty, the study of lead poisoning is gaining new appreciation from economists, criminologists and education experts as researchers document that early lead exposure harms children in ways that don’t become apparent until years later. The damage ends up costing taxpayers in the form of increased spending on health care, special education, and law enforcement.
The link between childhood lead exposure and violent behavior is well-established, both in animal research and human studies. Small doses can reduce IQ and essentially cause parts of the brain to short out, in particular, the areas responsible for controlling aggression.
As these studies have percolated beyond scientific journals, the biggest dispute appears to be how much of an impact the decline of lead in children has had on crime rates. Other experts credit changes such as falling unemployment rates, more police on the streets, higher rates of incarceration and a shift away from the use of crack cocaine as reasons for the decline.
Dr. Carl C. Bell is a clinical professor of psychiatry and public health, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research (IJR), University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He has done extensive research on the effects of lead and fetal alcohol syndrome in children. “Every behavior is biological, psychological and cultural,” said Dr. Bell. “We have to look for everything; lead, head injury. We have to always keep our eyes open.”
Given the scale of lead hazards in Chicago, advocates say political leaders are overlooking a cost-effective way to help improve schools and reduce crime.
“Of all the problems that affect kids in these neighborhoods, lead is the easiest to solve,” said Anne Evens, who now heads Elevate Energy, a nonprofit that addresses lead issues while making homes more energy-efficient. “But there just isn’t the political will to do something about it.”
“The difficulty is that there are such root causes that it will take almost 20 or so years, if we start now, to see any results from it,” Bell said. “[Politicians] are trying to get reelected tomorrow they do not have the time to wait on that. [Politicians] want to get the immediate done.”
Results of tests conducted on 2,435 indoor and outdoor drinking water sources found approximately 43 percent of Chicago’s parks had elevated levels of lead in water from at least one sink or drinking fountain.
But only three percent of the Chicago school district’s indoor sinks and drinking water fountains, and 24 percent of the district’s outdoor drinking water fountains tested positive for elevated levels of lead.
The Environmental Protection Agency considers water with less than 15 parts per billion of lead to be safe.
All of the fixtures that tested positive for high levels of lead in Chicago’s park district have been shut down, officials said.
At Packingtown Park, 4856 S. Laflin St. in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, an outdoor fountain had 311 parts per billion of lead, according to the test results. That is 22 times more than federal officials consider safe.
Among the highest test results were at Avalon Park, 1215 E. 83rd St., where water with 1,800 parts per billion of lead was found in an outdoor drinking water fountain. That’s 80 times more than the federal officials consider safe. Another fountain in the South Side park had 1,200 parts per billion, according to the test results.
At Grant Park in downtown Chicago, a fountain had water with 1,200 parts per billion.
For those exposed to lead as toddlers, even in small amounts, the scans revealed changes that were subtle, but permanent and devastating.
Scars left by lead have had significant consequences for the study participants and their communities. As children, those who were exposed to lead poisoning struggled in school more than those who had not been exposed. As teens, it was found that they committed crimes more frequently.
“What we found — and continue to find — is that lead sowed the seeds of their future,” said Kim Dietrich, a neuropsychologist who has been following the group of nearly 300 people since they were born in the late 1970s. “It isn’t conducive to behavior we associate with normal development, making smart decisions and success.”