CN Sep 7 2017

Michael Hawthorne’s not too worried that Chicago will have to deal with a Houston-like 50-inch rainfall any time in the near future. But Chicago, like Houston, has a lot of impermeable paving, endless parking lots and massive buildings with acres of roofs. In other words, lots of places where rain ends up with no safe place to go.

About 50 years ago the region embarked on the Deep Tunnel project as a way to reduce Chicago’s chronic polluting of its waterways, and to alleviate flooding at the same time.

We ask Hawthorne, who’s an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune (and the paper’s environment writer) whether the project, now more or less complete, has succeeded.

He says in many says it hasn’t. “I mean the weather has changed,” he explains, “but the climate is changing as well, and the way it’s changed in Chicago is that we get either long spells of heat or cold. Think of the polar vortex or think of the 1995 killer heat wave, but we don’t necessarily get as much rain or more rain than we used to, we get it in shorter, more intense bursts. And that’s really challenging our sewer system and the deep tunnel more than ever before.”

Have we spent more than $4 billion over four decades in vain?

“The answer,”  Hawthorne explains,  “from people from the City, from the water reclamation district say no, it’s money well spent. The problem could be a heck of a lot worse if we didn’t have this.”

But there are problems. “Because even with the deep tunnels in place,” he says, “they’ve been in place for more than a decade now, the City a few years ago did a modeling projection of how the local sewers, the sewers that are actually on your street, how they could handle a storm. And they figured out that two-thirds of an inch overwhelms most sewers in the City.”

And still there are sewer outfalls into the Chicago River that expel waste after especially heavy rains. “A story that I did earlier this year found that one storm in July, there was enough raw sewage and runoff that came into the north branch of the river that it could have covered the loop in muck about eight feet deep,” he tells us.

We all know that Chicago is a city of inequalities, and lead is a major example. While market forces such as gentrification and property rehabs have stripped the lead out of older buildings in wealthier areas, that hasn’t been the case in low-income neighborhoods. So for many poorer Chicagoans, lead exposure isn’t much better than it was in 1970 or 1920.

“They tore the public housing high rises down and shifted people into scattered-site housing or what was for many years called Section 8 housing,”Hawthorne explains. “But many of those private homes where people could get a voucher to pay for a good part of their rent, were homes that were built before 1978 when lead paint was banned in the United States…And they are not kept up. I’ve been in dozens of them and they are not necessarily kept up fairly well and so peeling paint is a problem.”

Hawthorne and his colleagues have reported for years on the residual lead deposits that still ravage some communities years after lead was effectively banished elsewhere.  “In part, because of the research that the Tribune did in terms of looking at the shifting of lead poisoning rates from 1995 to 2013 by census block groups, (so – smaller than neighborhood areas), you can see that lead poisoning essentially disappears from the wealthier neighborhoods of the City. And while it still declines in say Englewood or parts of Austin, Lawndale, while it’s a decline from what it was in the mid-90s it’s still significantly higher than the current City-wide average,” he says. “In some cases one of every five kids instead of eight of every ten kids are poisoned. That’s still a pretty sizeable number, and (Harvard researcher Rob) Sampson has gone back and looked at the people that he’s been following since they were young kids in Englewood. And one of the first papers that came out from applying lead poisoning to his earlier research, he summed it up by saying that lead paint or lead poisoning is a way that racial inequality literally gets inside the body.”

“There’s research out of the University of Cincinnati, Hawthorne continues, “where they’ve been following kids since they were in the womb, and they found that when they were in their school age years they did more poorly on standardized tests. They tended to fail grades more frequently. And when they got older, when they were in their teen years and early 20s they committed not only crime, but violent crimes at a far higher rate than kids who weren’t poisoned. And they are now finding some of these people are now in their 30s, well past the time when the peak crime-committing age happens, and they are still caught in this kind of maelstrom of crime and poverty, and some of the participants have talked with the researchers about – I just don’t understand why I get so mad all the time, or why I’m always fighting with everyone.”

Hawthorne says it all raises an interesting question: why aren’t we tackling this problem?

“Can we kind of go toward the low-hanging fruit? This is something that we know that we can control. We can’t necessarily control jobs in a neighborhood. We can’t necessarily control whether people have easy access to guns. We can do things by trying to prevent them from being lead poisoned. We know what to do…On lead poisoning we made great success. Some public health people, the Illinois Department of Public Health would say that combatting lead poisoning is one of the greatest public health victories of the 20th Century. But we still have thousands of children in the City of Chicago who start out life very early on with a very preventable condition that is going to cause problems that cost society, that cost us, that cost taxpayers a heck of a lot more money in the long-term.”

Funding for lead programs has been severely cut in recent years, Hawthorne says, in part because there’s a perception that it’s last century’s problem. But there are thousands of young Chicagoans who are struggling with neurological problems brought on by lead poisoning of their brains. “And then,” he says, “You have this kick in the gut, as one researcher put it, where their brain is permanently scrambled at a very early age because they’ve played on the ground like any kid does, and they’ve ingested lead paint or lead dust. And their brain has been irreparably damaged in parts of the brain that control your impulses, emotional control that allow you to pay attention.

It’s not a case of the politicians and policymakers not having enough data to proceed with some remedial work, he says.

“One of the best studies in Chicago, there was a researcher who formerly headed the lead program under Mayor Daley, she managed to get the early lead testing data from 52,000 children in Chicago public schools, and then found a different way with folks at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to compare their rates of lead poisoning or the amount of lead poisoning as a child with how they performed in third grade. And every increase, slight increase in the amount of lead that these children were exposed to or that was in their bodies when they were 1 or 2 years old increased their chances of failing third grade by almost a third. And these are kids that were in third grade in 2003 to 2006, so they are kids that today would be in their mid-20s if my math is correct. And what I found even more staggering about that research is that about three-quarters of the average level of lead poisoning in about three-quarters of Chicago public schools that were open at the time, this is among those third graders, the average was above what the Center for Disease Control Protection says is a threshold where kids should be medically monitored, where inspectors should be visiting their homes. That’s a lot of lead-poisoned kids that are living in this City today and now are in their early to mid-20s.”

“The City of Chicago has, the Health Department has now they’ve got ten lead inspectors. I’ve gone to housing court, the Administrative Hearing building, every week there are people in court or at the administrative hearings because a child was poisoned by lead in their home, so the problem hasn’t gone away,” he asserts.

What can individuals do? “You can go to Home Depot or Lowe’s or the Ace Hardware and get a pack of lead wipes and you swipe it and it turns a certain color if there’s lead there,” he explains. “They don’t do that at the CHA. They don’t do that at the federal HUD, and there were all these promises in the tail end of the Obama administration to take care of that. Ben Carson, the new HUD secretary said during his confirmation hearings that he understood this subject and that it was going to be one of his top priorities, but nothing has happened in this new era, this new administration yet, on this issue.”

We also discuss the ongoing issue of the lead service lines that bring water into our homes. Unless your house or building was constructed later than 1986, your drinking water is probably traveling into your residence through a lead pipe. Running new copper lines into every building in the City is a massive project, and many homeowners might not want the disruption. But other cities have figured out ways to do it, and to make it a public health priority.

“You have to remember lead is on the periodic table of elements,” Hawthorne points out. “It doesn’t go away. And we emitted a heck of a lot of lead from factories and out of our automobile tailpipes and we have lead in our homes and our water pipes and our paint was full of lead. And people knew, people knew in the last century, in the early part of the last century that this was a problem. But in a scenario that was repeated by many other industries, the tobacco industry, chemical industry, the lead industry pioneered a campaign of deception and of confusion essentially to keep their products streaming into our homes and into our environment.”

“There are a lot of questions out there,” he concludes. “The one thing we know a lot about, we know about the toxicity of lead and we now know that there’s no safe level of lead exposure. And the fact that we have it bringing what once was clean tap water into our homes, that should alarm everyone.”


Here’s an archive of Michael Hawthorne’s Tribune stories

Here’s the SoundCloud link to this show

Here’s a transcript of this entire conversation:CN transcript Sep 7 2017



About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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