CHICAGO — Something was definitely wrong with Tolanda McMullen's son.
The shift happened around the time he was 1½ in 2011. His appetite suddenly vanished, even for ice cream, a favorite treat. And although he was always very affectionate as a baby, his mood changed. He was cranky, achy, always crying.
Perplexed, McMullen scheduled doctor's appointment after doctor's appointment. Nothing helped, until she asked for her son to be tested for lead poisoning. Her prodding paid off — a blood test revealed her son was severely lead poisoned, likely because of the lead-based paint in their Gresham home.
"When a child gets lead poisoning, it robs them of their independence, of their intellect," said McMullen, who now has dedicated herself to activism around childhood lead poisoning. Though her son is 8 now, he has the mental age of a 3-year-old.
In view of this, state officials have moved to lower the level of lead in a child's blood that would trigger public health interventions by 50 percent — from 10 to five micrograms per deciliter, the Illinois Department of Public Health said this week.
If the proposed rules are adopted, many more children with the toxic metal in their blood would be identified and evaluated at home by public health nurses. Last year, for example, around 229,000 children in Illinois were tested for lead; more than 7,000 had blood lead levels at or above five micrograms per deciliter, provisional state data show.
Of this group, just over 5,600 had levels between five and 9.9 micrograms per deciliter. These children make up the majority of those with higher lead levels, but current state standards don't mandate anything be done for them -- something that would change under the proposed new rules.
The new rules would be armed with some new legal teeth too. The proposal would both boost enforcement authority for violations of the state's Lead Poisoning Prevention Act and Code, and increase the maximum fine for violators.
"There is no safe level of lead exposure, which is why it is important to identify children with elevated blood lead levels quickly and take steps to intervene," said Dr. Nirav D. Shah, head of the state department of health, in a news release announcing the plan. "Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to contribute to learning disabilities, developmental delays, behavioral problems, as well as a number of other negative health effects. The health effects of lead exposure cannot be entirely reversed."
The state has been working on lowering the level since 2015, said Melaney Arnold, health department spokeswoman, to match that set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although the CDC established the five micrograms per deciliter level in 2012, not all states have adopted the measure in their own lead programs.
The variation from state to state has frustrated some caregivers, including the parents of children poisoned by lead.
"All states should lower the actionable level of lead to five micrograms per deciliter to be in alliance with the level set by the Centers for Disease Control," said Queen Shabazz of United Parents Against Lead, a Richmond, Va.-based organization.
Some toxicology experts believe even five micrograms per deciliter is too high.
After all, if a child has a blood lead level that is two micrograms per deciliter and above, that child is having some kind of environmental exposure to lead, said Steven G. Gilbert, director and founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders in Seattle. Gilbert has long pressed the CDC to lower its lead in blood reference level to two micrograms per deciliter.
"We need to protect kids' brains," said Gilbert, who's studied the effects of lead exposure on children's brains and behavior since 1976, two years before lead-based paint was banned for use in U.S. homes. For children, "small amounts of lead makes a big dose," he said.
Although Shabazz and Gilbert agree that there is no acceptable or safe level of lead in a child's blood, both said Illinois' push for a lowered level shows the state wants to more seriously address the risk of lead exposure.
"A child is a terrible thing to waste," Shabazz said.
"I'm still emotional about this. It affected my family, my son," said McMullen, who now lives in Country Club Hills. "And it's preventable. Any lead is bad lead."