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Home improvement grant designed to get the lead out

BERWYN – The Cook County Department of Public Health has been offered a $2 million grant to promote a home improvement program for local families in 10 communities, including Berwyn and Cicero.

Awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program offers free lead inspections and repairs to income-qualifying families and is designed to protect Cook County’s residents, especially pregnant women and children under the age of 6, who are most at risk for lead poisoning.

“It really can affect a child’s neurological development,” department spokeswoman Deanna Durica said, adding that soft skills such as listening, paying attention and following directions – “which are really critical to school success” – could be impaired.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported that children exposed can experience hearing, speech or behavioral problems, ultimately impacting their growth, health and wellness.

When it comes to lead poisoning, Durica said that the story that’s often told is the one of a child eating a paint chip. Lead-based paint becomes the most dangerous when it begins to deteriorate, peel or chalk. But there’s something else that homeowners should know.

“The bigger culprit in exposures is often the dust that’s created when paint begins to break down, and it only takes a tiny bit of dust to expose a child,” Durica said.

Lead-based paint, along with lead-contaminated dust, are likely the most common causes for lead poisoning, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That type of paint is often found in homes built before 1978, the year when the federal government banned the product for consumer use.

“Just as an example, approximately 94% of all Berwyn homes were built before 1978. That number goes up to 96% in Cicero,” Durica said of why those two Chicago suburbs were selected to be part of the lead reduction home improvement program.

Blue Island, Calumet City, Calumet Park, Dolton, Maywood, Riverdale, Robbins and Summit round out the rest of the list.

Because lead exposure is considered a silent killer, Durica shared that the program serves as a way to draw more awareness to a serious issue and create a safer place for Cook County families to live. And in an effort to spread the word and build a network of support, the department of health has sought to work alongside the North West Housing Partnership and Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago.

Aside from home lead inspections, the department of public health also plans to help residents fix the lead paint hazards by removing the paint, replacing windows and more.

The grant program is expected to run until the summer of 2021 or until the funding runs out, Durica said. With a sense of urgency, she encourages families to take a closer look at the program and apply as soon as possible.

“We know that there are more housing units in Berwyn and Cicero than we can even pay for with this funding,” she said. “What we would love to see happen is for us to use this money quickly, doing as many units as we can because then we can reapply for more funding. The better job that we do with reaching families and providing these services, the better chance we’ll have of being able to get new and expanded funding in the future to do even more work in our communities.”

To learn more about the program, visit cookcountypublichealth.org. For Berwyn, Cicero and Maywood residents, questions should be directed to the North West Housing Partnership at 847-969-0561. Others can look to the Neighborhood of Housing Services at 773-329-4146 for assistance.