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Durbin tackles national lead crisis

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Sen. Dick Durbin speaking to media Monday about the need for improved lead safety standards nationwide. PHOTO/ Curtis Lawrence

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) Monday called on federal and local government leaders to take greater measures to protect children from lead exposure in city homes and water systems.

Nearly 80 percent of Chicago’s homes are connected to lead-containing pipes, according to Durbin’s press release.

Additionally, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s standards for federally-assisted housing places lead-based paint standards at four times the level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Speaking to reporters at downtown’s Federal Plaza, Durbin said incentives should be created to motivate local governments to apply for federal assistance in the fight for lead-free environments.

“We can’t stand by and watch millions of our kids have their health and futures jeopardized,” Durbin said.

This issue, however, is not restricted to lead pipes and lead paint chips.

Emily Benfer, the director of Health Justice Project at Loyola University Chicago, said lead is most commonly found in dust and dirt, which is not as strictly recognized by federal regulations.

Also, federal standards do not allow families to move from their federally-assisted housing and maintain federal aid, Benfer said. Following Durbin’s press conference, Benfer told the story of a Chicago woman living on the West Side who would have risked losing her housing voucher if she moved from her lead-infested home.

“She had to choose between homelessness and lead poisoning,” Benfer said.

Durbin added that there is a racial aspect to these issues of water quality, with most commonly arising in low-income and minority communities. Recent developments with the water crisis in Flint, Mich. have brought more widespread attention to Chicago’s own lead issues.

“Flint really woke us up,” Durbin said.

After switching the city’s main water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in an attempt to save money during a financial emergency, residents noticed a difference in smell and taste in the water coming from their taps. Researchers from Virginia Tech found that the water from the river was highly corrosive, and the high level of Flint’s service lines made of lead caused the element to filter into the water of city homes.

Henry Henderson, the director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Midwest Program, attended Durbin’s press conference and said he was “extremely supportive” of Durbin’s initiatives toward more sound federal standards.

“If you want to destroy a civilization, feed the people lead,” Henderson said.

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GRAPHIC ART/ Mikael Häggström, 2015

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