Lead paint: One family’s terrifying experience


“Mrs. Lawton, we have the results of your son’s lead test and the doctor wants him to be retested, and she wants to see him again right away.”
That short message turned our world on end.
Three years ago, my husband and I bought a pre-Civil War house to renovate. Having children wasn’t on our radar, and we weren’t overly-concerned about protecting ourselves from hazards like asbestos and lead paint.
We ripped down paneling, tore out carpeting, pried loose linoleum, overhauled the landscaping and stripped original woodwork.
Homecoming. It was snowing when we brought home our newborn son from the hospital.
The nursery wasn’t finished, and I couldn’t climb the stairs after my Caesarean section anyway, so the little guy and I spent most of our time on the first floor while Daddy worked on the nursery. The woodwork was painted “Barbie pink” so he had his work cut out for him, sanding and scraping.
When our son was three months old, the nursery was finally finished.
* * *
Many people live in older homes that constantly need repairs and upgrading. Some of these homes are inherited with the farm, and some of us willingly purchase them with doe-eyed dreams of grand restoration.
Homes built before 1978 most likely contain lead paint, which was outlawed because of its toxicity to both children and adults.
In fact, when you purchase a home, you are required to sign a statement acknowledging receipt of an informational pamphlet discussing lead’s dangers.
Like other mortgage documents, it probably gets shuffled into a folder, never to be seen again.
Even those who are familiar with historical renovation and its risks are guilty of disregarding this safety information.
“It’s not like I eat paint chips,” we say. Or, “People ate off of lead plates for years and they turned out OK.”
Real dangers. But the dangers are real with lasting effects.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead Awareness Program, lead poisoning in children can cause brain, liver and kidney damage; slowed development; learning or behavioral problems; lowered intellect; and hearing loss.
And this damage is permanent. There are treatments to lower lead levels, but they do not reverse the damage.
What’s worse, most of these symptoms don’t show up until the child is older. Many exhibit no symptoms at the time of exposure. Severe cases present themselves with headaches, stomachs, nausea, tiredness and irritability; the worst result in coma, convulsions and even death.
* * *
“Your son’s levels were pretty high. Normal is between zero and nine, but his level was 20. We’ll fax over an order to the hospital for a second draw to retest him.”
I broke down. My son’s level was twice the accepted high.
But there was no time to dwell on guilt and finger-pointing: We needed to take action.
Hours later we had our little man retested, and I called my family practitioner for a blood test order as well. What if I transferred lead to him in utero? What if I unknowingly passed it to him all these months through nursing?
Research. Before our next appointment with the pediatrician, I did what many do when they need quick medical information: I searched the Internet. Big mistake.
Leading medical Web sites screamed that even looking at lead would cause severe brain damage. From reading the information, I assumed I had injured my son to the point of no return. I was convinced, despite his alertness and obvious intelligence, he was doomed to a life of learning disabilities and social ineptitude.
* * *
According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 890,000 children in the United States between 1 and 5 have blood lead levels higher than the recommended maximum of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood.
And 24 million housing units contain deteriorating lead paint.
Within these houses, lead is found in many out-of-the-way places. Not all children ingest it by obvious routes – eating paint chips, drinking contaminated water or contact with lead paint-covered objects, like antiques.
Surprising sources. One of the most prevalent sources of lead is from dust kicked up by peeling, damaged or disturbed paint. This includes scraping, sanding and everyday wear and tear.
Not only is the dust inhaled, it settles on floors, furniture and toys, which children often put in their mouths.
Perhaps the most surprising source of lead exposure comes from the simple act of playing outside. Some houses still have lead paint exteriors or had them at one time.
The soil in the vicinity could be contaminated with lead runoff, so if a child plays in the area, chances are good of exposure and ingestion. Gardeners are especially vulnerable when they turn the soil. What’s more, lead gets tracked in on shoes.
But not all lead in the house originates in and around the house. Adults who work around lead may be bringing it home on clothes and shoes.
Those who work in the painting, automotive, recycling or construction industries should be particularly vigilant about changing clothes and shoes before entering the house.
* * *
Our son’s second blood draw resulted in a 16 – down four points from the first, but still abnormally high.
By the time the pediatrician walked into the room, I was in a full-blown, sweaty-palmed shaky panic.
Imagine my surprise when she said there was no damage at his current level and he didn’t require chelation therapy, a treatment that rids the body of excess lead but does not reverse any damage.
She assured me he was fine.
Miracle. All our little man required was a multivitamin supplement with iron (increased lead causes lower iron levels) and another blood draw in a month. He would be tested again three months after that.
I must have been incredulous because the doctor even retrieved a reference book to convince me this was correct. I wanted hug and kiss her and yell at the top of my lungs that my little boy was fine and I wasn’t the worst mother in the world.
I offered a heart-felt thank you instead.
Measures. When we got home, we instituted several changes.
We now have a no-exceptions rule that shoes are not allowed inside the house; we sweep and mop the wood floors more often; we painted the upstairs bathroom; my husband takes off his coat and work boots before touching our son; and we are waiting for test results on our water’s lead content.
I have also had my blood drawn to test my lead level. It was “undetectable,” so at least I can let go of some maternal guilt.
While we search for the source of my son’s lead exposure, I’m thankful we’ve gotten a second chance to make things right for him. Not all children get that opportunity.
(Farm and Dairy copy editor Stephanie Lawton welcomes feedback at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at slawton@farmanddairy.com.)


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