It is perhaps the most interesting gift residents on the 1000 block of North Austin will receive this
holiday season, and as of a week ago Monday it was still wrapped. When the plastic shroud finally came off the house, located at 1034 N. Austin Blvd., it signified the end of an elaborate lead removal project, which piqued the curiosity, not to mention the concern, of neighbors and passersby.
"The owners were doing renovation, and they had some licensed lead workers over there for a while. This was a home that was tested and was found to have lead. They hired a contractor and removed it," said Mike Charley of the Oak Park Department of Public Health.
While the work is complete, the questions surrounding the project may just be beginning. Some of those who live near the property are now wondering if they were ever at risk of being exposed to dangerous levels of lead.
"There were permits in the window and big poison signs with a skull and a cross that said do not enter, which is pretty scary when you have children all around," said Adalena Oliver, a resident on the 1000 block of Austin. Traces of lead, particularly in older homes, are not uncommon. The majority of hazardous lead material in houses is found in older lead-based paint.
Danger arises when lead material is ground down to a powder and becomes airborne. The house at 1034 N. Austin was found to have hazardous lead material in the exterior and interior paint.
"Any home built prior to 1978, there is a risk that it contains lead somewhere in a building component. You are not very much at risk unless you disturb a lead-bearing substance," Charley said. "If they did the lead remediation correctly, then the neighbors were not at any more risk than they were by having the substances next door."
Frank and Maureen Johnson, the current owners of 1034 N. Austin, have owned the property since 1995 when they purchased it from the Oak Park Residence Corporation. According to Ali ElSaffar, of the Oak Park Township Assessor's office, the village may still have some stake in the property.
Last June, the village made a small loan to the Johnsons. Two months later the Illinois Department of Health was informed that the home contained lead substances.
The led abatement officially began on Nov. 15. It took a little more then three weeks for personnel from DEM Services Inc., a state-licensed environmental contractor, to remove all lead-bearing substances. Workers from DEM services took precautions that included wearing full-body protective gear and covering the work site in plastic.
Paul Middleton, the owner of DEM Services, is confident that the necessary steps were taken to guarantee the safety of his employees and those who live around the site.
"There is monitoring data that is taken around the work area to ensure that the safety of those involved in the removal of the lead is not threatened. This data also ensures that the areas outside the worksite are safe," Middleton said.
The arrival of workers, in full-body chemical suits, came as a surprise to residents of the 1000 block of N. Austin.
"When they removed the material, they were covered from head to toe in protective gear. They did not tell us anything. Some other neighbors and I had to inquire and find out it was lead," Oliver said.
The Illinois Department of Public Health oversaw the Lead Abatement Project on Austin. State law does not require the contractor or private resident to notify neighbors about the removal of hazardous lead.
"In schools there is a law that says if lead or asbestos are being done you must contact all the parents. In a residential setting that doesn't really exist," Middleton said. "We try to serve the client in the best way and follow the regulations that have been set forth. If they want the project to be low-profile then we will do that."
With lead abatement complete, not much remains of the house that stands at 1034 N. Austin. It is likely that the owners of the home, who were unavailable for comment, will proceed with renovation.
In a town that is no stranger to hazardous material, Adalena Oliver still has a laundry list of complaints and concerns in regards to the project.
"It concerns me from a parenting perspective and a financial perspective. What does this do to my property value?" she asked.