Family shocked after toddler suffers dangerous lead poisoning from their apartment
CHICAGO (CBS) -- A silent killer – that is how experts across the world describe lead.
The heavy metal has not been used in consumer products in the United States for almost a half century.
And yet, lead turned up in a Chicago toddler's blood recently.
The young boy's lead levels were so high that he may not be able to live a normal life. As CBS 2's Lauren Victory reported Sunday night, his family is now on a quest for answers.
At the Ruzicka residence, you'll find lots of cuddles and a little bit of chaos – typical toddler things. But this past fall, 21-month-old Jedi Ruzicka wasn't making any mischief.
He was hardly making eye contact.
"It seemed like there was a fog there. He wasn't interested in nothing," said Joseph Ruzicka, Jedi's dad.
His son wasn't talking or babbling. He was really only grunting or whining.
Alainah Long showed us the referrals from Jedi's pediatrician. He went in for audiology, neurosurgery, and other developmental screenings. A crucial part of these check-ups turned out to be bloodwork.
"We were laying in bed watching TV just like a normal day. Couple hours later we're in the hospital and my son's in the ICU. I didn't even know what to think," said Ruzicka, letting out an exasperated sigh.
Jedi's lead level came back at 76. For reference, a level of 3.5 would've caused concern. Doctors start emergency treatment if kids hit 45.
Little Jedi had almost double that number in his system.
"I was Googling like, "What is lead poisoning?"' said Long.
Lead poisoning is something that affected more than 7,000 Illinois children as recently as 2019, according to state records. An Illinois Department of Public Health report goes on to warn that "childhood lead poisoning in Illinois remains one of the highest in the nation."
"We have to have as our goal, I think for the 21st century, to bring every baby home to a lead-safe environment," said Dr. Mary Jean Brown from Harvard University.
Brown spent years as chief of the Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC website is chock-full of lead contamination information – including why it's so detrimental to kids' brain development.
"Many children will have trouble in math. That's more related to judgement things in the frontal cortex," said Brown – who added that other possible long-term effects include struggles with reading and anger management.
So how are kids in 2023 getting poisoned by something banned 45 years ago?
Lead-based paint is usually the culprit. It's often found in homes built before 1978. Chicago has a lot of those, including the apartment Jedi's parents rented in November 2021.
"With all our kids, it was just a huge space. It looked really nice, remodeled," said Long.
But some areas of the Belmont Cragin neighborhood building were deteriorating – including a bedroom window with paint coming off.
"I just thought it was chipped paint," said Long, not realizing it was chipped lead-based paint.
When doors closed, she says tiny particles would fly around the apartment.
"I just thought that was just dust," Long said. "I didn't know that was going to harm my child."
A City of Chicago inspection confirmed lead in the building. The report showed lead hazards in the closets, hallways, and stairways, among other places.
Jedi's parents tell us they weren't told the rental had lead.
Their landlord, Edgar Espinoza, denied knowing about it too when CBS 2 reached him by phone. Espinoza declined an on-camera interview.
Cook County property records show he purchased the building as a foreclosure in 2013.
If he didn't recognize lead-based paint, that's one thing. But CBS 2 noticed something else important – the Ruzicka family's lease is missing check marks next to the "lead notification requirement."
We showed Long the Environmental Protection Agency's lead information pamphlet the Ruzickas should have gotten before move-in.
Espinoza said he didn't know about that requirement – even though it's been federal law for 30 years for anyone renting property constructed before 1978. https://www.epa.gov/lead/residential-lead-based-paint-hazard-reduction-act-1992-title-x
A city inspector slapped a big warning on the building door after Jedi's lead poisoning diagnosis, and Espinoza tells us he is working to fix the lead issues.
Meantime, Chicago's Department of Public Health (CDPH) is working to better inform parents of young children about lead dangers. CDPH recently unveiled a Lead-Safe Housing Registry with 50 properties that got cleaned up in just one year.
Progress has been made, but there's a long way to go. The same goes for with Jedi, who is now in therapy to try to reverse any lead poisoning damage.
His family is trying to raise money for his medical costs.
"Every day, I'm trying to piece together how he can get better," said Long. "How is this going to affect him long term?"
The toddler's blood lead level is down to 17 from 76. That's still not where he should be.
But back at their new apartment, Dad notices a difference in Jedi's behavior – his rambunctious boy is back.
"Just those little milestones, they kind of get me a little emotional because he wasn't doing none of this four months ago," said Ruzicka.
No more Jedi the Zombie. It's time for Jedi the Warrior.
Jedi is scheduled for an MRI next week to see how much brain damage the lead poisoning caused.
To help prevent these situations in the future, CDPH is working on a system where families can inquire if lead hazards are found at a specific address.
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