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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Silent Epidemic - Part Two

Air Date: Week of

Most often the way people get acute lead poisoning these days is through exposure to old paint in dwellings. The stereotype is of a poor child eating a paint chip in a dilapidated home. But plenty of cases come from lead dust particles too small to notice. While children living in low-income homes run a greater risk of poisoning this way, thousands who live in more affluent homes are also at risk, especially during or just after major renovation. In part two of our series, Deirdre Kennedy reports on one young family who learned about lead poisoning the hard way.


CURWOOD: While lead can contaminate large areas through industrial emissions or as a gasoline additive, most often the way people get acute lead poisoning is through exposure to old paint in dwellings. The stereotype is of a poor child eating a paint chip in a dilapidated home. But plenty of cases come from lead dust, particles too small to notice. And while children living in low-income homes run a greater risk of poisoning this way, thousands who live in more affluent homes are also at risk. In Part 2 of our series, The Silent Epidemic, Deirdre Kennedy reports on how one young family learned about lead poisoning the hard way.

(A gathering. Woman: "Can you open up that ravioli?" Man: "That's potato salad." Child: "Can I do it, Dad?")

KENNEDY: Linda and Dan Hodges live with their 5 children in what looks like a picture book Victorian house near the San Francisco Bay. When they went shopping for their first home, they had a particular dream house in mind.

L. HODGES: I wanted a Victorian. And I wanted 5 bedrooms, formal dining room, and a fireplace. And when we saw this house we couldn't believe it. We were just thrilled.

KENNEDY: The house the Hodges bought was a 110-year-old fixer-upper. They knew they had a lot of work to do, but they didn't bargain for what they got.

L. HODGES: We had moved our kids into what we thought was our dream come true, and it ended up being our worst nightmare. It was terrible.

KENNEDY: Their nightmare came to life about 3 months after they moved in. Almost by accident, a friend suggested that they have their house checked out for lead.

L. HODGES: We had a Halloween party. We were giving, you know, the nickel tour. And Doug, who works for the lead abatement program, came to the party. And he said you know, you should probably have the house tested. And the guy came out, and the minute he started testing, it was off the charts and they came back with the results right away saying we had near hazardous waste levels outside in the soil, and lead everywhere in the house. And we had no idea. You can't see it.

KENNEDY: What the Hodges didn't know was that a previous owner sandblasted the outside of the house, sending a fine lead dust raining down into the soil. When the Hodges moved in their children were age 3 to 10 years old. Within weeks their youngest child Zachary's blood lead was around 25 micrograms per deciliter, more than twice the level of concern for children.

(Child making noises: "Hm hm hm hm hm hm...")

KENNEDY: But Dan Hodges says, like most lead poisoned youngsters, Zachary didn't show any obvious symptoms.

D. HODGES: That's the thing -- that's the most scary. By the time you start seeing any signs, there's usually permanent damage already been done. And so, hopefully we've caught it before any permanent damage was done.

L. HODGES: We were very, very lucky. Because we weren't educated. We just thought oh, lead, our kids don't eat paint chips. You know, we didn't know we were breathing it in.

KENNEDY: The Hodges had an emergency lead clean-up and containment done. They moved out of their home while a crew used solvents and a special high-tech vacuum cleaner to remove the fine lead particles. Then, specially trained contractors sealed up the old lead paint and covered the leaded soil in their back yard with concrete and wood chips.

(Child: "Hey, you pushed me down. Don't push me down.")

KENNEDY: The lead remediation cost the Hodges about $20,000, which they paid for with an interest-free emergency government loan. Their lead problem is finally contained, but, they say, after their ordeal they're not taking any chances.

L. HODGES: Zack?


L. HODGES: You need to wash that plum before you eat it. Because it fell, was it on the ground?


L. HODGES: Okay. It needs to be washed.

We're watching them, you know, every minute. And then you want them to be able to play outside, but then there's all the dust and you worry and it's just -- oh, it's always on your mind. You know, you're living in it.

KENNEDY: Like many more affluent parents, the Hodges didn't think their children were at risk for lead poisoning. Because they didn't think they lived in the kind of neighborhood where kids got lead poisoning. What parents don't realize is that a vintage mansion may have more lead than a modest home built in the 1980s. Alice Chankoffman, a lawyer with the Environmental Law Foundation, says in houses built before the 1950s, it's not uncommon for the underlying paint to be up to 50 percent lead.

CHANKOFFMAN: People thought lead was great in paint. It made the paint more durable. Any building that is relatively old is going to have lead paint somewhere, unless it's at any point been sanded right down to the walls and repainted.

KENNEDY: But unless it's done by a qualified contractor, sanding down the lead can be worse than leaving it alone. That's how the Hodges' home became a lead nightmare in the first place. Under a new Federal law, owners of homes built before 1978 must tell buyers and renters about known lead hazards on their property and provide them with a pamphlet about lead poisoning. But only a few states and cities actually require property owners to test for lead hazards or to fix them.

(Water runs from a tap)

KENNEDY: Paint is the main source of lead poisoning in children, but there are many other sources, including tap water. In Roman times plumbing was made of pure lead. In fact, the word plumb comes from the Latin word for lead. These days lead in drinking water is a problem for about 1 in 6 homes in the United States. It can leach out of old municipal water tanks or lead pipes in older homes. It can even come from lead solder in copper plumbing installed until a decade ago. Lead can also come from faucets.

(Water boiling; a teakettle whistles)

KENNEDY: Alice Chang Kaufman says water absorbs lead when it's been sitting in lead- contaminated pipes for several hours. Unlike germs, lead can't be boiled out of drinking water, but she says you can help reduce the amount of lead by letting the water run for a minute or more before using it. Groups like the Environmental Law Foundation also provide inexpensive home kits to test for lead in water, soil, paint, and imported ceramics.

CHANG KAUFMAN: I certainly would advise -- certainly somebody who's buying a home, and probably somebody who's renting a home if they have children -- to check the place out before buying it. To conduct lead tests to find out if there's a problem. Because once you've discovered lead problems in a house, it can be very costly to take care of.

(Machinery; sanders or saws?)

KENNEDY: Now that Dan and Linda Hodges have gotten their own lead problem under control, they're facing another hazard: the same one threatening residents across America. Lead dust blowing into their yard from their neighbors' renovations.

D. HODGES: And they're working on that house next door.

L. HODGES: I'm worried about that.

D. HODGES: Yeah. Because they have lead and asbestos over there, and I'm not sure how aware they are of it. And, you know, we've done so much work to help protect ourselves from our house, and then to have all that construction going on next door, you know, with dust being stirred up and things. I just wonder what our exposure risk is for that.

KENNEDY: For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

(Construction continues)

CURWOOD: Next week our series continues with a look at the problem of lead poisoning for industrial workers and how it affects their children.



EPA's Lead Programs

CA Dept. of Health Services' Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch


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