An Oak Park resident is playing a pivotal role in how Illinois approaches the problem of childhood lead exposure.
Samina Hadi-Tabassum, an educator and researcher with the Erikson Institute, will evaluate a three-year pilot program in Cicero, Berwyn and Rockford — places with high rates of lead exposure.
As part of the pilot programs, children in those areas who are under 3 years old and who have blood lead levels that are higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter (what the Center for Disease Control classifies as the “level of concern”) will automatically be eligible for a range of early intervention services. Previously, the CDC’s level of concern was set at 10 mcg/dL.
“The early interventionists will come to the home, bring information about preventing lead exposure, and teach families how to read and talk to children to make sure they won’t have cognitive delays much longer,” said Hadi-Tabassum.
The pilot program is the result of $600,000 that the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation, a private foundation that focuses on children’s health, provided to Legal Council for Health Justice and Erikson Institute.
If the program works in the three pilot areas, Hadi-Tabassum said, it could be rolled out across the state. She said the pilot program, the first of its kind in the country, studies whether or not providing intervention services will prevent complications from lead exposure when a child gets older, which is when they typically start to manifest.
The study could have significant implications in places where there’s a concentration of old homes with lead-based paint and old, lead-based infrastructure, among other major risk factors for childhood lead exposure.
Hadi-Tabassum said that, even though she’s a clear-eyed researcher, the problem resonates on a more visceral, emotional level. Since having children of her own, she’s been vigilant about their lead exposure.
“I live in an old home built in 1898,” she said. “We have lead in our building. I’ve looked at ways that we can seal up plaster, clean up dust, watch where our children crawl, wash their hands.”
Amy Starin, a senior program officer with ILCHF, said in a statement that despite the “known harm caused by lead exposure, systems of public health, medicine, and social services struggle to provide families with the necessary testing, education, supports and interventions to ensure the best possible outcomes for children. This work promises to reshape how Illinois delivers services to at-risk children.”