Lead paint threat still prevalent across Chicagoland

ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Lead tainted water has made national headlines for months. The I-Team found that residents of Chicago and its suburbs also face a lead health risk, but not in their water.

There is a pervasive poison all over the city and suburbs, a silent epidemic that has fallen from people's minds. It's lead paint. You'll be shocked by the numbers of local children testing positive for lead and facing the possibility of brain damage. We talked to a family who finds themselves in just that terrifying situation.

Caitlin Szontagh would have never thought there was this poison in her home.

"Nor would I have thought he was eating it, I never imagined that this could potentially damage his brain," said Szontagh, whose son is suffering from lead poisoning.

Caitlin Szontagh's family is dealing with the frightening effects of lead paint. Twice a day, she gives her 2-year-old son Marshal medicine, through a tube in his nose to combat the high levels of lead in his blood.

"Lead affects your brain development. Nobody ever imagines that this will happen to them," said Szontagh, whose son was poisoned by lead.

That's because lead paint has been banned since 1978.

"There should not be lead in water, but the reality is the majority of kids being harmed are being harmed by lead paint on the walls in their homes," said Anita Weinberg, Lead Safe Illinois Task Force, Loyola University.

Knowles: Walls, windows, everything?
Szontagh: Ceilings, walls, everything, and this is the main entrance to our house.

"Chicago and Cook County has a lot of old housing stock and the older the housing stock, the more likely it is to have lead paint in it," said Weinberg.

The numbers are staggering. In 2014, 270,000 children in our state tested positive for lead, which is one of the highest rates in the nation.
In all of Cook County, 4,564 children tested positive and not all children are tested. It's a big concern, since most homes in Chicago and suburban Cook County were built before 1978 and 41-percent of them have "significant lead paint hazards", according to the state.

"It's sort of the silent epidemic because you don't necessary see something happening," said Weinberg.

Cook County's health department first went to the Szontagh's Berwyn apartment last year after Marshal's brother tested positive for lead in a routine doctor's visit. Inspectors found lead throughout the home and ordered the landlord to take action, including alerting tenants and removing the lead paint or facing steep fines.

According to the county, no action was taken. Now Marshal is being treated for those high levels of lead.

"They did an X-ray and found paint chips in his system. His level had jumped to 60 and at that point, they hospitalized him," said Szontagh.

The county came out again earlier this month and again ordered landlord Patricia Groves to fix the problems in the apartment or face civil or even criminal charges.

Knowles: We'd like to talk to you about high levels of lead found on one of your property.
Groves: Get off my public, er, private property.

But that landlord has evicted Szontagh despite a state law prohibiting it.

"Enforcement becomes an issue. It depends upon the city or the county or the village, how responsive they are about making sure the property owner does something," said Weinberg.

The county has not alerted prosecutors of Patricia Grove's case and the state's attorney unit that dealt with lead issues was disbanded more than ten years ago because of budget cuts.

Now Caitlin Szontagh is scrambling to find a new home as she's praying for her son to get better.

"All we can do now is the therapy, impulse control and trying to make sure that his little brain is continuing to develop," said Szontagh.

What you can do? Have your child tested for lead, especially if you live in a home or apartment built before 1978.

You can also have a professional check your home for lead paint and contact the county if lead is found.

If you choose to remove lead paint, seek a professional who is licensed.

For more information about lead paint poisoning:

Cook County Public Health - Lead Poisoning:

Lead Safe Illinois Task Force at Loyola University Chicago - Child Law Center and Policy Institute:

"The Ripple Effects of Childhood Lead Poisoning" Report:
http://leadsafeillinois.org/facts/ripple-effects.asp (Roll your cursor over each effect to learn more.)

The Illinois Department of Public Health - 2014 Lead Report:

The National Lead Information Center - 1-800-424-LEAD:
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