She didn’t look sick, but Mahoghny Walker struggled to learn. Blood tests showed high levels of lead from old, chipping paint in her Chicago home.
She had lead poisoning. So did her eight siblings.
That much was clear to nurse practitioner Martha Glynn, the family’s primary care provider.
What wasn’t: how to help their mother, Lanice Walker, navigate the Chicago Housing Authority’s system to move her kids to a safer home.
Glynn turned to the Health Justice Project, a joint effort of Erie Family Health Center and Loyola University Chicago School of Law. Since 2010, project attorneys have received more than 2,000 referrals about patients with legal issues such as housing, education, disability and family law.
Nationally, the medical-legal movement, rooted in AIDS patient activism, now boasts nearly 300 hospitals and health centers in more than 30 states with partnerships helping vulnerable, low-income patients.
“Medical providers realize that sometimes these issues are more important for health and well-being than cholesterol and blood pressure problems,” said Dr. David Buchanan, Erie’s chief clinical officer. “It also helps our care teams, by allowing our medical providers to focus on what they’re best trained to do.”
Homes built before 1978 usually have some lead-based paint. When it flakes, the dust can cause attention problems and harm school performance in children. Landlords with public housing contracts are supposed to fix the hazards.
Led by Loyola law professor Emily Benfer, Health Justice Project attorneys are urging the CHA to increase protections for residents by lowering the blood levels of lead that trigger a risk assessment or repairs.
Currently, the CHA conducts a risk assessment when a child under 6 years old has a blood level of 20 micrograms per deciliter — a level set by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations.
Going to 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood for children of any age would align the program with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of lead poisoning.
CHA officials plan to meet with the project and review the proposed standards, agency spokeswoman Wendy Parks said.
“Our aim is to promote good health and reduce risk-factors, especially those associated with lead-based paint hazards,” Parks said.
Glynn sees lead poisoning frequently.
“In the past two months, I’ve had 12 abnormal lead levels out of 30 tests, all in children ages 3 and 5,” Glynn said. “To me, it’s an issue of social justice because we know how to prevent this problem, but we’re not doing it.”
The project assisted Mahoghny’s mother for a year on a quest to get CHA permission to move and a lead inspection once a new place was found.
The attorneys “walked me through everything that was supposed to have been done,” Walker said. “Things that I didn’t understand, they explained.”
Mahoghny, now in third grade, gets help in school. But the subtle, lasting neurological damage from lead poisoning is done.
“She’s so eager to learn. She really wants to learn,” Walker said during a medical checkup for two of her daughters. “My kids’ health is more important to me than anything.”