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Delinquent youth in detention.

On May 4, the Chicago Defender published the first part of an investigative series about lead in Chicago’s water supply and its scientifically proven effects on juvenile delinquency. The story was quickly seized upon by other media outlets as Chicago is beginning to experience its own version of Flint, Michigan.

Unlike in Flint, Chicago’s tap water doesn’t taste foul, emit strong odors or contain any discoloration; however, the presence of lead in the drinking water is largely undetectable as lead doesn’t necessarily change the color or taste, thus offering a false sense of security to the unsuspecting public.

Last month when Chicago announced that it would start testing its water to see if it was partly responsible for lead poisoning, the then-commissioner Tom Powers resigned all of a sudden. He told Chicago Parent Magazine in a 2014 interview “I have my own kids drink this water. This water is safe by EPA standards.” Then: Why the sudden resignation?

Lead, a known neurotoxin that detrimentally affects children and fetal development, has sparked recent debate as to its contribution to juvenile delinquency. While the debate continues among professionals as to the validity of this theory, the Chicago Defender couldn’t help but notice the startling number of youth arrested by the Chicago Police Department in the past two years.

In a related story, we reported on data provided to us in an FOIA request that showed over 18,000 juveniles arrested in Chicago in 2015, and almost 15,000 juveniles arrested in 2014. That’s 33,000 youth in two years, and fewer than 60 had attorneys present while being interrogated. While lead’s impact on childhood development is undeniable, not everyone is convinced it has anything to do with increased juvenile delinquency.

Denied Link to Delinquency

Dr. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist at the Community Mental Health Council, who specializes in youth exposed to violence, says “It’s not true. It makes for a good headline, it sounds good, but it’s not true.”  Citing a report by the National Academy of Sciences that states that violence is down 50 to 60 percent from 10 to 15 years ago, he stated. “I trust the NAS. It’s the best science in the world.”

In a 2003 case study titled “Bone lead levels in adjudicated delinquents,” the study looked at 340 youths and concluded that elevated body lead measured by bone lead concentrations are associated with elevated risk for adjudicated delinquency. And, as this topic continues to capture the public’s attention; the city of Chicago is now testing the water at 31 public schools across the city.

In an FOIA request submitted to Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Defender discovered that the majority of the schools being tested are on the south and west sides of Chicago, in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Only four schools on the list were on the north side of Chicago. So far, Tanner Elementary School tested positive for elevated lead levels in its water and the water has been shut off, according to media reports.

According to Dr. Steven Aks, a toxicologist at Stroger Hospital, once a child is exposed to lead it goes from the blood into other tissues and then it will settle into the bones “fairly promptly at the time of exposure.” The settling in the bones can occur within “days to weeks” he stated.

Terry Mason, COO, Cook County Department of Public Health stated in an email “Generally, Chicago and Cook County numbers of children with elevated levels of lead has been decreasing – as is the trend throughout Illinois.  As the state-certified public health department for suburban Cook County, that is what we have seen in our jurisdiction. Note that while lead levels are decreasing, lead remains a problem. We know that even very small amounts of lead can affect children’s behavior and cognitive function.”

Dr. Bell, when asked about possible treatments for those affected by lead poisoning, said, “They have lead withdrawal, biotechnical things, EDTA which is lead removal medication. Then they have psycho-social programs like Behavioral Day programs.”

The Triple P, Positive Parenting Program® is a parenting and family support system designed to prevent – as well as treat – behavioral and emotional problems in children and teenagers.

Dr. Aks, who has dealt with lead poisoning for the past 25 years, says someone poisoned with lead can be treated with chelation. But the best treatment by far is “prevention,” he said.

For the most part, the city insists that the water is safe. The Department of Water Management spokesman, Gary Litherland, says “Chicago tap water is safe and clean, exceeding all standards set by the USEPA and the Illinois EPA.”

“That’s exactly what they told Flint residents,” says Shaidah Shareef, Bronzeville resident and community activist.

This story first appeared in the 5/25/16, print edition of the Chicago Defender newspaper and has been updated.

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