Lead on

By Timothy Bearden

Though the idea of living on-campus seemed like a good investment a first, Mariella Cinquegrani found out the experience came with a high price and little pay off.

The sophomore graphic design major and her roommates, Chelsea Goldberg and Nikki Muri, lived on the seventh floor of the 18 E. Congress Parkway Building in fall 2008. On move-in day in August 2008, a parent of a friend who had seen the University Center of Chicago, 525 S. State St., wanted to see what the other on-campus housing options looked like.

The mother visited the loft and, based on her experience in realty and the chipping paint she saw in the apartment, suspected the building could contain lead-based paint. She suggested the suitemates conduct a test.

After what Cinquegrani described as a semester of improper building maintenance, she and her other two roommates used a store-bought test in November 2008 to check if lead-based paint was present in the unit.

“We kind of suspected lead-based paint [was present] because of the overall quality of the building and the paint was chipping off of the ceiling,” Cinquegrani said.

The results from their home kit tested positive for lead-based paint and Cinquegrani drafted a letter to Residence Life stating she “did not feel safe in this building” in November 2008. The report centered on the general upkeep of the building and the suspected presence of lead-based paint, which licensed inspectors later said were at “high levels.”

She and her roommates also requested to be released from their contract and financial obligations. As stated in the report Cinquegrani presented to Residence Life, the three roommates continuously found paint chips in their furniture.

The e-mail response from Residence Life on Dec. 5 stated there was “no lead paint anywhere in the building, as lead paint has been illegal for a number of years. Also, the facility has used the same paint from the same supplier since rehabbing the building from 1998-2000.”

The roommates also reported the lead-positive result to the city of Chicago’s 311 hotline in November 2008. They needed to get a certified inspector to verify the initial findings.

Cinquegrani said after speaking to Residence Life, they told her they would conduct an investigation, but “no one ever came out.”

One month after the initial complaint to Residence Life, Cinquegrani found the proper department to report her test results. The structure was tested for lead-based paint by the Chicago Department of Public Health on Dec. 9, 2008.

Columbia leases the building from Hostelling International, said Kim Livingstone, executive assistant to Alicia Berg, vice president of Campus Environment.

Cinquegrani said when city inspectors arrived at her unit on Dec. 9, 2008, they found two spots with high potential for lead-based paint on the ceiling and the wooden beams of the dorm.

“They basically told us there were very high levels,” she said. “As high as their meter could read.”

Lead-based paint in buildings is measured in milligrams per centimeter squared (mg/cm sq.). The readings from Cinquegrani’s unit was meausred at 9.9 mg/cm sq. for the living room and bedrooms’ walls and ceiling beams.

Tony Amato, a lead inspection supervisor in the Department of Public Health, said the ordinance requires the paint to be below 1 mg/cm sq. The device his inspector used is called an X-ray flourescent analyzer, or XRF, which can only read up to 9.9 mg/cm sq.

“At 9.9 we’re well past any confidence level in terms of them being above statutory limit,” Amato said. “So at that point, rather than continue to read to see how high it goes, which is immaterial to us because they’re well over the limit, the machine will stop processing it.”

Cinquegrani and her roommates have since moved out of the 18 E. Congress Parkway Building and into off-campus housing. The report they filed was a petition to be relieved of all financial obligations for the spring 2009 semester, which Residence Life granted.

In the forms acquired from the city through the Freedom of Information Act, there are multiple areas in the unit Cinquegrani and her roommates lived in that tested positive for lead-based paint.

The living room was cited as a “lead hazard,” and the bedrooms had “potential moderate risks.” The document also states there were no “potential low risks” at the time of inspection. Amato clarified the difference between a risk and a hazard.

“A hazard is something that contains lead above statutory limit that is broken, peeling, flaking, chipping, dust producing and accessible to the child,” Amato said. “If it’s a hazard we’re going to ask you to fix it. A risk is something that has one or two of those things, but not all three.”

He said the difference between a moderate and low risk is subjective to the inspectors. Paul Coley, general manager of the Hostelling International Chicago, 24 E. Congress Parkway, said the city sent the business a notification on Jan. 20 stating the lead levels were low, but present.

Coley said the city gave him two months from Feb. 2 to fix the problem when officials came for a second site visit, which would be around the beginning of April.

“They came out and gave me the requirements of what I needed to do,” he said. “We have to hire someone who is certified in lead eradication to fix the problem.”

Coley said Hostelling International has begun the screening process for contractors supplied by the city, but as of press time he still has not chosen a contractor. The Department of Public Health requires the hostel to report back once they have chosen a professional to begin the abatement process, he said.

Coley emphasized the lead levels were low in the tested unit and provided no immediate cause for concern. But because they were present, he is required by law to begin the abatement process. Abatement is either the complete removal of lead hazards, such as paint, or controlling it by encapsulation, making it inaccessible for at least 20 years, according to CDPH guidelines for the control and mitigation of lead-bearing substances.

“Lead paint is a hazard to everyone,” Amato said. “More specifically children, that’s primarily what we deal with … It’s a violation of the city health code. You can say that ‘It doesn’t affect that,’ but we don’t know who’s going to be living there two weeks from now.”

Coley said the department received a tip from one of the residents, identified by The Chronicle as Cinquegrani, who did a self-test and discovered the hazard, but Coley did not know the name of the resident when asked.

“I was out of town at the time,” he said. “A student did a self-test with a home kit for whatever reason, found lead-based paint and then the city came out and conducted their own test.”

Columbia students living in the 18 E. Congress Parkway Building were notified by Residence Life via e-mail Feb. 4 about the lead-based paint. Cafecito and the soon-to-be constructed Dairy Queen both also rent space from Hostelling International. He said the city recommended all parts of the building should be involved in the abatement process. Coley said he plans to follow the city’s recommendations.

Tim Hadac, spokesperson for the CDPH, said restaurants are not regularly checked for lead-based paint, and the test is not part of the regular health department inspections. He said a restaurant would not be closed down if it were found to have lead-based paint.

The documents provided by the CDPH include a letter addressed to Coley regarding the complaint. In the letter, it states warning signs must be posted at all entrances to the building.

Hostelling International had not posted any warning notices on its property as of press time.

When he was asked about when the signs would be posted, in a separate telephone interview Coley said The Chronicle was “blowing the story out of proportion” and declined to comment further.

Amato said if the signs aren’t posted, the business can be issued a $500 ticket for not complying.

Berg said she was unaware of the recent issues with Hostelling International and, to her knowledge, no Columbia buildings have tested positive for lead-based paint.

“Student safety and health are an important issue to the college,” Berg said. “We’ll be looking into this, as well.”

She also said when the college builds or renovates buildings on campus, officials perform “whatever abatement necessary” to the structures.

Hadac said the city mostly focuses on inspecting for lead paint in buildings known to house small children, generally 6 years of age and younger, because they are at the highest risk for lead poisoning.

Melany Arnold, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said adults can handle up to 40 micrograms per deciliter (40 mcg/dL) whereas children should have lower than 10 mcg/dL in their bloodstreams.

Lead-based paint can be inhaled through dust or paint chips. The biggest risks for adults are hypertension, high blood pressure or problems with the fetus during pregnancy. Adults can be screened upon request, but Arnold said the department mainly handles small children, as they are high risks for contact. Arnold also said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the agency that deals with adult cases since most of adult lead-poisoning involves workplace hazards. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the average level of lead in an adult’s bloodstream is approximately 3 mcg/dL.

The Environmental Protection Agency has made it unlawful for any buildings found to have lead-based paint to house children for more than 60 hours a year. The EPA also mandates effected buildings to be renovated or repaired by a licensed abatement professional starting in 2010, according to reports on the agency’s website.

The report also indicated the biggest risk factors for children are reduced IQ, learning disabilities and/or behavioral problems.

Lead-based paint is only a potential hazard to adults or children when the paint is chipped, cracked or peeling from a surface, Hadac said. The damaged paint can result in leaded dust or paint chips along window sills, .in the soil or on the floor.

Hadac said since the building was most likely built prior to 1978, when lead-based paint was discontinued, the positive test result was not uncommon.

“Any building in Chicago built prior to 1978 most likely has lead in it,” he said. “That’s just the world we live in. Is it causing anyone harm? Probably not.”

Micki Leventhal, director of Media Relations, e-mailed a statement to The Chronicle regarding the lead-based paint issue.

“Hostelling International is moving forward to correct the situation and will be doing the work in the affected room within the next two months,” the e-mail statement said. “It is our understanding that Hostelling International will do the further work over the summer. Columbia will continue to monitor the situation to ensure the health and safety of our students.”

In next weeks edition, The Chronicle further examines the living conditions of the 18 E. Congress Parkway Building based on other students’ complaints.

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