In Southwest Side viaducts, peeling paint contains toxic levels of lead. But is it a hazard?
Three years ago, a teacher and her sixth-graders found levels hundreds of times what would be considered safe for house paint. But city health officials downplay any health threat.
Peeling paint dangles from the ceilings across five Southwest Side viaducts where children pass through daily, walking across thousands of pieces of paint chips and dust.
Alejandra Frausto, a mother and former teacher at nearby Eberhart Elementary School, wondered about that stuff for years.
Then, her sixth-grade science students finished a project three years ago. It found that the paint used in the viaducts contains brain-damaging lead at levels hundreds of times higher than what would be considered safe for house paint.
“I was hoping we wouldn’t find anything — that it would all be an exercise to see that we are safe,” Frausto said.
Wanting to make a difference in their community, the students presented their findings regarding the walkways beneath the CSX Transportation-owned rail tracks that run along Central Park Avenue from 63rd to 67th streets to Ald. Silvana Tabares (23rd). Tabares then wrote, in October 2019, to Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner, about “the decay and terrible condition of the viaducts.”
“The lead tests conducted by the students show that they present an ever-constant threat to local residents and students,” Tabares told Arwady. “I’m asking if these same students can show you their findings and possible solutions to ensure that the issue with lead and these viaducts be put to an end.”
The kids never got to meet with Arwady. Instead, Tabares was told by a city health official that testing would be conducted and that, because it involved a bridge for the railroad, the city’s transportation department would be in charge of the matter, emails obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
It doesn’t appear any city testing ever was done.
But Frausto, who’s now a doctoral student at Northwestern University, took part last year in a more extensive sampling. Those results also were given to Tabares, who again was rebuffed by the same health official, Alfonso Martel, who told her the health department “does not have purview over bridges.”
Martel didn’t respond to an interview request or questions.
A health department spokesman said that, despite the high levels of lead, “Walking under an outdoor viaduct is unlikely to be a significant source of lead exposure for school-aged children.”
The spokesman noted that most lead poisonings occur in homes where paint is flaking, exposing children over long periods to the toxic metal, and touted city programs as having helped drastically reduce the number of lead poisoning in children over the past 30 years.
Lead-poisoning cases are most prevalent in Chicago on the South Side and West Side.
Chicago Department of Transportation and CSX said they would agree to meet with Tabares.
Tabares said cleanup is urgently needed and a “serious matter.”
As Frausto recently posted fliers warning about the lead, she walked across paint chips. Without testing them, there’s no way to know whether they fell from the ceiling, where high lead levels were discovered, or from the walls, which have been repainted numerous times and did not show high lead measurements.
As Frausto finished posting fliers, dozens of kids walked from Eberhart, east of the viaducts, across to West Lawn. The bridge divides East Lawn and Chicago Lawn. Mothers pushing strollers also crossed under the viaduct at 65th Street, where the dust was noticeable.
“It’s definitely not healthy,” said Dr. Helen Binns, director of the lead evaluation program at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, who reviewed Frausto’s report at the request of the Sun-Times. “There are people walking through these areas. It’s on the wheels of the strollers, it’s on your shoes, and you bring it into your home.”
Frausto’s report found a dozen samples of paint had lead levels that well exceed a limit of 90 parts per million, the federal standard for safe house paint, including one sample that measured lead concentration at almost 13,000 parts per million.
This standard doesn’t apply to industrial uses, such as the viaducts. But health and environmental advocates say governments have a responsibility to address potential health hazards.
“It’s shocking how much lead we continue to find and it continues to poison children,” said Amanda Gramigna, associate director of environmental health for the nonprofit Elevate, who has been involved in lead-abatement efforts for more than a decade.
The lead levels “are very high and should be abated,” said Dr. Steven Rothschild, who chairs the Department of Family Medicine at Rush University Medical Center. “Although lead in water has gotten a lot of attention locally and nationally lately, lead paint remains the major environmental source of lead leading to problems.”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.