Here’s what didn’t make it into our City Bureau investigation, released this week as part of WBEZ’s Curious City, about the threats of contamination from home demolitions.
By Jeremy Borden
City Bureau and WBEZ’s Curious City story explored the potential health problems that come from the demolition of old houses built with toxic materials — and the lack of attention to the issue from Chicago officials. It airs Thursday, January 11, around 3:30 p.m. and again around 5:30 p.m. and Saturday, January 13, between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on WBEZ 91.5 FM.
Our City Bureau team has been joking a bit about all the stuff in old houses and buildings that can kill you.
It’s along the lines of paramedics’ humor — there’s a tinge of horror there. And while I’d like to think that every big story changes your perspective or informs your worldview, the seemingly odd topic of looking into the potential harms that can come from construction dust — asbestos and lead are everywhere, people — may oddly linger, for me, among the longest. Over beers last week, a friend showed me, proudly, a photo of his DIY rip-out-the-ugly-tiles-in-his-ceiling project. After he told me his house was built in 1959 — asbestos was commonplace until the late 1970s and remains legal today — I treated him to a short but pointed lecture on the dangers of the asbestos that might lurk there.
That episode and the fact that these invisible killers lurk everywhere speaks to the larger issue our team found while on the always-twisting road to creating consumable journalism: This particular issue, like dust from a construction site (you’re welcome), spreads everywhere. Each time my fellow City Bureau team members, Tucker Kelly and Manny Ramos, and I uncovered a new avenue to explore, I had to say: “That’s a great story. But it’s not a story we can tell right now.”
We included a lot in the 11-minute piece (fairly long by radio standards) — but we left a lot out too, including victims and advocates we had spoken to. I’ll explain why, but first here’s a summary of what we did find:
When old homes are torn down, lead and asbestos can cause health problems in all that pulverized dust, which is why it needs to be removed immediately. For asbestos, a common building material, it can cause a type of fatal lung cancer. For lead, the problems are particularly acute for children, who can suffer developmental problems if they ingest lead paint or breathe in particles.
David Jacobs, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and works as the chief scientist at the National Center for Healthy Housing, conducted a federal study on the issue that was published in 2013. Jacobs tested the quality of the air around dozens of demolition sites in Chicago. He found high levels of lead on average of 400 feet away from the construction sites — meaning contractors weren’t doing a good job containing dust.
There are hundreds of smaller home demolitions in Chicago — and we found oversight from city officials was lacking, with few fines for dust-related inspections. Larger demolition projects — or those with acute environmental issues, like gas stations — receive greater scrutiny. City Buildings Commissioner Judith Frydland told us, incorrectly: “A regular single family home is not going to have a lot of environmental issues.”
Frydland did say that the Chicago Department of Public Health should have been following up on environmental issues (the Department of Environment was eliminated in late 2011 due to budget cuts). On this issue, it’s unclear how many resources they’re devoting: Despite ample evidence of wind-blown construction sites, CDPH issued just one fine in 2017 for problems related to demolition dust and debris. The health department and mayor’s office did not respond to many requests for comment.
Alderman Scott Waguespack is paying attention. In my favorite exchange from the audio piece, he describes how he can’t get city officials to respond to bad contractors who aren’t containing dust or are doing other sketchy things. (Yes—an elected official can’t even get his colleagues’ attention on this matter. A previous City Bureau story explored, in part, the aldermanic creature’s actual amount of power.) Waguespack says he and a staffer go around and try to prevent contractors from continuing shoddy demolitions.
Waguespack: I’ll block like a backhoe or something from being able to maneuver…
Me: Oh, really?
Waguespack: That’s when you get more of a response.
Me: You drive your car on the sidewalk?
Waguespack: Like in the alley if it’s a bad situation.
Me: How many times have you done that?
Waguespack: A lot. Sometimes that’s the only way to stop them.
This being Curious City, a radio program that takes questions from listeners and answers them, we spoke with McKinley Park resident Robert Beedle, who had submitted the question about the potential issue of dust and debris from demolition. So we tried to approach our piece from his perspective — a neighbor who isn’t always exposed to these kinds of contaminants but could be.
I felt that having testimony from victims about the health impacts would have mistakenly equated Robert with the people who typically suffer the consequences of contamination: workers.
But there are others who have been affected whom you might not have expected.
I learned that my exposure most likely came from my father’s work clothes. When I was a child, my dad worked construction and much of what he did was drywall sanding and demolition. At that time, much of the joint compound used in buildings contained asbestos. He would be the one who sanded the joints after the tapers finished, and he is the one who swept up the drywall dust that was the result of all that sanding. He would come home covered in this dust. He had a coat that he would wear, and I too would wear this same coat when I had chores to do at home. It was this coat, covered in asbestos dust, that probably caused my mesothelioma. I was given just 15 months to live. Thankfully, I had an incredible mesothelioma doctor and have far outlived my original prognosis. It was not easy by any means.
Linda Reinstein, a well-known advocate, talked about trying to pass a federal asbestos ban through Congress named after her husband, Alan, who died from mesothelioma.
Shaping policy is glacially slow. I’ve been working on passing [a bill] for 14 years with many others who have come before me and work with me still today. So, it’s not a new concept to ban asbestos. Over 60 other countries have done that. The U.S. has not.
The issue goes deeper — weak federal regulators and standards, workers needlessly exposed for years, and a lack of education or awareness among practitioners, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. But here was one of my biggest takeaways: There’s no truly safe level of exposure to contaminants like asbestos and lead, experts say, and the health effects can show up years or decades later.
That’s why it’s often difficult to connect a house nearby being knocked down — or some other event — with a health problem. It’s also why this whole demolition dust thing is such a big issue. As another expert put it: “If it was a case where you breathed in this dust laden with asbestos and you broke out into purple spots, then everyone would be talking about it.”
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