09/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Poisoning Children in Chicago: An Old Problem in a New Century

Our way of life in America is apparently simple: hardly anything in the public interest gets done unless someone makes money at it.

The verdict about whether our way of life leads to happiness or self-destruction hasn't been written by history yet, but meanwhile there's plenty of misery to go around, and too much of that misery involves the mangling of children -- like the environmental mangling of children in the city of Chicago.

One major problem with the environmental mangling of children is that it usually starts at conception, not at birth. The developing fetus is acutely sensitive to environmental pollution, maybe in general 100 times more sensitive than adults -- and that's especially true for the developing brain of the fetus. The consequence is that in principle many later deficits or disorders, ranging from lower IQ to learning disability to cerebral palsy to severe psychiatric disorders can be produced by environmental impacts on the fetus. The same is true for impacts on growing children. Some children are more vulnerable than other children, but we don't know why.

Environmental lead pollution has been a particular scourge of the children of Chicago for many years. The two major sources of lead in Chicago were leaded gasoline and leaded paint. Leaded gasoline has been banned in general in America, and leaded paint has been banned for residential use. But lead is an indestructible element and lead residues are everywhere, especially in soil.

Many people think it's an urban problem and not a suburban problem, but that's a mistake. Another mistake is the belief that if the soil around your house is contaminated with lead you need to eat the soil to be affected by it. Not so. It's soil dust carrying lead that's the problem. If you breathe the dust, the lead gets into your body. If you're a pregnant woman and breathe the dust, the lead gets into your body and then into your fetus. In the fetus, lead can mangle the development of the fetal brain. The brain of a child already born continues to develop until about the age of twelve, and if lead gets into a child's brain, that brain can also be mangled.

Is all of this just journalistic blather to make a story? Science tells us otherwise. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin and Chicago has enough of it to make both the city and suburbs dangerous.

Suburbs also?

In 1994, a research group at the Northwestern University Children's Memorial Hospital asked a simple question: Is there dangerous lead in the suburbs? They examined the blood lead levels of nearly 1400 children living in suburban Chicago and related these levels to the type of house in which each child lived. Their conclusion? Children living anywhere in the suburbs in a house built before 1960 are at high risk for high-dose lead exposure. An old house in Highland Park is as dangerous as an old house in Harvey. It makes no difference that the old house has been repainted with unleaded paint. The old leaded paint, scraped or peeled, has contaminated the soil around the house. In areas close to past automobile and truck traffic, sixty years of exposure to leaded gasoline exhaust has also contaminated the soil.

What about low-risk areas? In 1999, the same research group published data suggesting that in and around Chicago on average approximately 3.5 percent of children have levels of lead in their blood high enough to qualify them by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as lead-poisoned. In some areas the levels are many times higher. A 2007 study by a group at Southern Illinois University showed that inner city children living in West Side and South Side neighborhoods have the highest prevalence of elevated levels of blood lead.

So what's to be done? One problem is that toxic pollution is not a high priority in neighborhoods bedeviled by violence and drugs. It's a sad situation because there's good evidence that violence and psychiatric problems that favor drug addiction are correlated with high levels of lead in fetuses and children. If lead is indeed a causative factor in violence and drug addiction, the scenario becomes insidious. Lead causes violence and drug addiction; violence and drug addiction depress the neighborhood economically and socially; economic and social depression produce a low concern for pollution coupled with poor prenatal and maternal care; these consequences make fetal and childhood impacts of lead more likely; and the cycle then repeats itself in a new generation.

That's a good prescription for man-made misery passed from one generation to the next in a cycle of man-made pain.

I wish I had a complete reasonable fix for this problem, but I don't.

One possible partial solution is to cover lead-contaminated soil with concrete. A startling statistic is that in New York children in Brooklyn have blood lead levels 5 times higher than children in Manhattan in the same socioeconomic group. The difference may involve the fact that Manhattan has very little exposed soil. Brooklyn is much like Chicago: many old houses surrounded by exposed lead-contaminated soil.

Maybe the most important immediate objective is to recognize that we have a serious pollution problem in Chicago and focus on what can be done to solve it. Children everywhere in and around the city need to be tested for lead in their blood. Houses and soil need to be tested and condemned if necessary. Putting flowers in flower pots all over town is a nice touch and makes Chicago look pretty for tourists but it doesn't do much for the mangled brains of children on the West Side and South Side -- or do much for vulnerable children in upscale places.

It would be a major public good to stop the mangling of Chicago's children. Do we just wait until someone figures out how to make money at it? Or will we at last do something in this new century because it needs to be done?