A few years have passed, but activists still remember when city officials first told them about the van. The mayor’s budget director was doing the talking. She said the van–30 feet long and outfitted with a state-of-the-art blood-testing laboratory–would be the city’s main weapon in the war against lead poisoning. She said the van would travel throughout the city, bringing nurses, health educators, and maybe even doctors to test and treat children for lead poisoning.

“A lot of people came away expecting the van very soon,” says Aaron Miripol, coordinator for the citywide coalition of community groups called the Lead Elimination Action Drive (LEAD). “We certainly needed it.”

The budget director was Sharon Gist Gilliam, her boss was Mayor Harold Washington, and the conversation took place in the late fall of 1986. Since then, mayors have come and gone, and still there is no van.

Or rather, there is a van, but for the most part it sits unused in a city lot because the city hasn’t hired the staff needed to operate it on a regular basis.

“It’s useless–they got a van and they don’t use it. How much more frustrating can it get?” says Cheryl Johnson, a LEAD coalition member. And it’s not just the van, she says. This year the city was supposed to hire building inspectors and lab technicians, “and they still haven’t done that, either. The only way they’ll get serious is if some official’s child gets poisoned–then you’ll see City Hall screaming about the lead-paint crisis.”

Strangely enough, city officials have been warning of a lead-paint crisis for years. Older, low-income neighborhoods, where buildings are rehabbed less frequently, have the most severe problem: the annual rate of contamination there can reach as high as 25 poisonings per 1,000 children.

Health experts link lead contamination to kidney, liver, and brain damage. Children are more likely to get lead poisoning because they are apt to eat chunks of lead-based paint. Even inhaling the dust is more hazardous for them because of their smaller size.

“Probably the only way to eliminate this problem altogether is to start at one end of the city and work your way to the other end removing all the lead-based paint from all the buildings,” says Charles Catania, chief of the city’s Bureau of Community Health. “Short of that, we have to test kids and get them some treatment when we find that they are contaminated. Kids between the ages of nine months and six years are the most vulnerable. If you have any kids, you know that kids between those ages will put anything in their mouths. Paint chips are the biggest danger.”

When Mayor Washington appointed a task force to study the problem, it took them a year, but eventually they produced a document that pretty much reported what everyone already knew: the city had to do something about its lead-contaminated buildings. Specifically, the task force recommended hiring more building inspectors and cracking down on delinquent landlords, fining or even jailing those who did not remove lead-based paint.

In the meantime, LEAD pressed city officials to buy the van.

“The van’s important because it’s mobile, it’s visible, it gets you to where the people are,” says Johnson. “You can drive right up to a school or a [CHA] project and test the kids.”

At that November 1986 meeting, initiated by 49th Ward Alderman David Orr, Gilliam promised to use 1987 federal aid to buy the van. But by the summer of 1987 the van still hadn’t been bought, and city officials changed their tune. Instead of buying a new van, they said they would save money by rehabbing an old van.

By the spring of 1988 the city hadn’t rehabbed an old van either, and they changed their minds again.

“They told us that they were going to buy a new van, and that they had never said they were going to rehab an old van,” says Miripol. “We were kind of in a twilight zone; we didn’t know what to believe. We didn’t want to fight with them. We didn’t want to call them a bunch of liars. We had to work with them after it was all over. Besides, we were mostly dealing with Catania, and he was sympathetic to our cause. It was the people over him–specifically, the mayor’s people–who worried us.”

City officials explain that the main reason for the delay was that the van had to be specially designed and constructed.

“You’re talking about a 30-foot-long vehicle that contains a full laboratory, blood-drawing stations, an examination room, refrigeration storage, and the capability to see up to 600 people in an eight-hour day. There’s a lot of difficulties related to that design,” says Catania. “We had a great deal of problems with the generator. It has to run a lot of equipment. You can’t just pull up to a housing development and say, ‘Please, may I use your outlet to plug in my van?’ And it can’t run off the 12-volt battery that’s powering the car, either. That would last for maybe 20 minutes.”

Asked about rehabbing an older medical van, Catania says, “The old van was in total disrepair. It would have cost us too much to recondition it. We started looking at medical vans that were already assembled. The problem we had was the fact that we were going to be drawing blood in the van. That requires certain types of material. You don’t want seams where anything can collect.

“Plus, we have to design it for a flow of patients, where people enter at one door and exit from the other without a traffic buildup.”

Three companies made bids on a new van once the idea of rehabbing an old van was scrapped. In the summer of 1988, the city accepted the bid of a car company that offered to supply the van for about $80,000. In November 1988, the Lerner papers quoted Catania as saying that the newly purchased van would be patrolling neighborhoods by spring 1989.

Spring came, however, and city officials and the vendor were still negotiating a few design problems: the van had defective carpeting, for example, and countertops with sharp edges.

“They asked us to be patient, and told us that the van would definitely be ready by the summer,” says Miripol. “Then when the summer came, they kept telling us, ‘Any day now.'”

By the fall of 1989, word that the new van would be out soon began to spread throughout the city. In January 1990, the Tribune ran a story reporting that “this week the [city] is expected to take possession of an $80,000 mobile laboratory which should enable officials to increase the number of children being screened.”

And sure enough, a few days after the Tribune article, the city got its van. It was delivered to a lot on the north side, where it has sat for months.

It turned out that the city had no one to operate it.

“They told us that the city had not started the hiring process,” says Miripol.

What hiring process?

“The hiring process you have to start to hire someone who can operate the van,” Miripol explains. “Listen, don’t blame me–that’s what the city told us. We couldn’t believe it either. You would think that with all the time it took to get the van, they could have started the hiring process.”

But things are not that simple, of course.

“Drivers are union employees, so you have to find a person who is in the correct driving classification to drive the van,” says Catania. “Plus, the van requires a lab technician, a clerical person to keep forms, health educators to go into the buildings and tell kids that the van is there, and a supervisory person to make sure everything is going smoothly. In the meantime, we have to deal with budget cuts and limited resources.”

That final point–about the budget cuts–really irritates LEAD activists. Last summer, coalition members spent a lot of time trying to convince Daley administration officials to allocate more money to fighting lead poisoning. They were never given a meeting with the mayor, but the coalition got Orr to propose an amendment to Daley’s budget that would have added about $1 million for lead-paint programs.

During the December budget debate, Daley and his allies managed to defeat that amendment (apparently Daley didn’t want Orr, an opponent, to receive favorable press). But then, perhaps embarrassed by the ensuing publicity, Daley got the council to allocate about $650,000 to hiring 14 lead-paint inspectors, educators, and lab technicians, who could also have been used on the van.

The coalition says that none of these employees has been hired. But Catania insists that eight are on the payroll and receiving training.

As for the van, Catania says it’s ready to make periodic trips into the neighborhoods.

“It’s not ready to go out every day,” he says. “But we are in the process of making up a schedule. We’d like to get it ready for heavy use during the summer. We plan to take it to some of the major neighborhood festivals, where there’s lots of kids and parents. If you or any community group would like to schedule a visit from the van, call 744-8503.”

LEAD members, however, say they have heard such promises before.

“This is nothing new,” says Miripol. “We’ve heard that story for years. I put a lot of the responsibility on Mayor Daley. He said that he was going to put a major emphasis on lead-paint abatement programs, and he hasn’t.

“On the other hand, look at the way the city has been lobbying for Navy Pier or McDome [McCormick Place] or the new stadiums. They’re fighting hard to get money for those things. It’s a question of priorities, and that’s what’s so frustrating. We could have a lead-paint program if the mayor would only pick up his phone and say ‘We need those lead inspectors now!’ When you consider how many children are getting poisoned by lead–which will affect them for the rest of their lives–I can’t understand why this has dragged on for so long.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.