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Thursday, April 1, 2004 03:32 pm

Lead alert

Crystal and John Bishop hold 4-year-old son Michael inside their trailer last Tuesday afternoon on East Clear Lake. Michael has suffered from seizures since doctors discovered high levels of lead in his bloodstream two years ago.

It was a routine check-up.

Springfield native Crystal Bishop says nothing was visibly wrong with her nearly two-year-old infant son, Michael. But then came the results from his blood tests, which showed Michael with enough lead in his system -- six times the limit set by the federal government -- to cause mental retardation.

"It tore my heart out," says grandmother Dianna Shea, who visited Michael during the weeks he was treated at St. John's Hospital. "He's getting stuck with needles constantly. A baby shouldn't have to go through that pain."

Two years later, Michael, now four, suffers from learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, according to his parents. He speaks at the level of a one-year-old, they say, but much worse are the seizures he sometimes suffers at night.

The Bishops have since traded in their apartment on West Jefferson -- found to have high concentrations of lead in the walls, windows, and pipes, for a trailer on East Clear Lake.

"Even here we have to use a hose for water because we don't have the money to fix the pipes," Crystal says.

Cases of lead poisoning persist today despite the federal government's 1978 ban on lead-based paint for interior use. According to statistics, Illinois ranks first in the country in elevated blood-lead levels among children ages six and under. This age group is considered most vulnerable to long-term health hazards from lead, which can stunt development and in extreme cases cause death.

According to the most recent statistics provided by the Illinois Department of Public Health, 6.3 percent of children tested for lead poisoning in Illinois in 2002 had elevated blood-lead levels, compared to 4.4 percent of children tested nationally.

Springfield also exceeds the national average, with 5.1 percent of kids tested having dangerously high blood-lead levels.

Local screening for lead poisoning has become a priority since last February, when the city of Springfield received a first-of-its-kind, three-year, $2.16 million grant for lead mitigation from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Already, the city is requesting another $3 million HUD grant to begin when the current grant expires, according to Jan Sorenson, operations coordinator for the Office of Planning and Economic Development.

"We need more money because we just have that much lead here in Springfield," says Sorenson.

City officials hope to double the number of children tested annually for lead, which in 2002 was just 16 percent of Springfield's total population.

Areas with the highest levels of lead poisoning are located on the north and east sides of the city, with ZIP codes 62702 and 62703 designated high-risk by the Illinois Department of Public Health. Nearby Illiopolis is also considered a high-risk area.

"I had no idea I was living in a high-risk ZIP code," says Lori Dale, a secretary at St. John's Hospital, whose daughter, Hannah, was diagnosed for elevated lead-blood levels two years ago. "Now I worry about my child's development, and think about what I could have done to prevent this."

While economically depressed areas are often hardest hit, all houses are considered to have some form of lead in them, says Linda Cress, a nurse who for eight years has headed the lead prevention and awareness program with the Springfield Department of Public Health.

Lead is found in such household items as toys, cosmetics, jewelry, mini-blinds, candle wicks, craft models, stained glass, wrapping paper, and glossy magazines.

The onset of spring brings its own set of hazards. One of the most common sources of lead is found in windows, where chipped paint can grind into dust when opened and closed. Paint chips can spell trouble especially for infants, who have a natural tendency to put things in their mouths.

"The two things we stress to parents," says Cress, "are nutrition and cleanliness. We advocate diets high in calcium, iron, and vitamin C; and regularly washing window sills and vacuuming can make a world of difference."

Many homes pose a lead exposure risk, from chipping paint to stained glass.

If ingested by children, lead can cause serious developmental problems, nervous disorders, and even death.

The city of Springfield is currently administering a $2.16 million federal grant toward lead mitigation, with the goal of doubling the number of children tested annually for elevated blood-lead levels.

For information on lead poisoning screenings and prevention, call the Springfield Department of Public Health at 789-2182.

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