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Lead Poisoning Prevention Month 2014: Baby Gus in Los Angeles

Shared by Gus’ Dad, Mat – 9/20/2014
I am sorry to say that our story is just beginning to unfold.
My wife and I welcomed our son Gus on January 27th, 2014. In 2012, we had lost a child after terminating the pregnancy due to a random (not genetically explicable) severe birth defect. That experience caused profound anguish for us and so our gratitude for Gus has always been as great as any parent but even deeper in light of his robust health and wellbeing.
We rent a home in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Eagle Rock. The home began its life as a charming old cabin on a hill built in 1928. Over the years it has been renovated a bit but retains all its charm. Because I formerly renovated a loft in an old mill building in Providence and because my mother is a pediatrician and MPH, I was careful to inspect our own home for any places in which old paint might be deteriorating or creating dust. Thankfully, I deemed it all intact and well covered over and did everything correctly to protect Gus from lead.
Two weeks ago, we received a note from the owner of the property next door that he would be power-washing his house but would clean any pain chips that got in our yard. For whatever reason, I thought little of it at the time. One day, after the washing had begun, and was being carried out by what seemed to be an unlicensed crew using no tenting or barriers and wearing no protective gear, the lightbulb went off. I practically ran over to the house to ask the non-english speaking workers if the paint had been tested. They didn’t know and so called the property owner. Of course, it had not. I told them they needed to stop immediately and went to call the county of LA.
Of course, the county was concerned and scheduled an inspector to come later that day. Before he arrived, the property owner showed up at my house, the yard now entirely covered in a fine white ash-like powder, bearing a cheap lead testing kit that looked like it could have come from a drugstore. When I told him I had contacted the county, his face dropped and his wife muttered at me under her breath.
The inspector came and took samples from both the sea of paint chips that covered the yard and from the fine dust on our picnic table where we often sit with our son. This past Monday, we got word that while some of the chips did not test positive for lead, the dust had tested very high. To be clear, this dust was almost as fine as drywall dust and had likely spread all over the neighborhood. I immediately found a lab that would do a venous draw on my son (him being younger than 9 months) and got him tested, expecting we were doing this only as a precaution. The following day my wife and I had our own blood tested.
So, Thursday we got our son’s results and he tested at a Blood Lead Level (BLL) of 6 micrograms per deciliter as well as slightly anemic. [Note: In this country, the CDC currently considers a child “poisoned” with a BLL of 5; in Germany a child is currently considered “poisoned” with a BLL of 3.5.] We were advised only to have him re-tested in a month and begin supplementing daily with iron drops.

The inspector returned to give the property owner and his handyman instructions on how to clean the yard. These instructions were so ridiculous it feels silly writing them: The contractor was advised to “mop” everything 3 times and to use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Now, if you could picture my yard (see photo!), it’s a classic LA desert-like yard, basically all dirt with a single

Gus' Home

Gus’ Home

stone patio taking up perhaps 15% of the area. The notion that you could vacuum up dust from dry dirt (particularly in the middle of a drought) is ridiculous. Nor, obviously, could you mop it. Only when I asked the inspector did he agree to come take soil samples after the cleanup.

So the work has been carried out but we can no longer open our windows, let our dogs in the yard, or, really, spend time there ourselves. We got our neighbor to reimburse us for a green maid service to do a deep clean of our home, car-detailing to remove dust there, dog washing and purchasing an air filter tower (with appropriate filter) for our home, which we were pleased with, but when he paid us, he asked us to sign a release of liability.

So now we sit, facing pediatricians largely ignorant that the consequences of a blood lead level (BLL) 6 for an infant may be hardly inconsequential, an inspector from the county lead abatement program so obtuse he’s instructed a handyman to vacuum and mop a dirt yard, and really nowhere else to go.
We hope and pray that Gus will be able to excrete this exposure quickly and with no lasting damage, but we are terrified and incensed that anyone could be so utterly ignorant and thus threaten the wellbeing of our most treasured son.
Gus' back yard

Gus’ back yard

We’d like to sue as a way to penalize him, but a personal injury lawyer tells me this would only be possible if we could demonstrate Gus had been damaged—which, of course, is the last thing we want. Mostly I guess I write to get this off my chest and to express my frustration that the guy who did this will face only the “penalty” of getting a one hour lecture from the lead abatement program. Only on the second offense does he face a misdemeanor charge.

I thank my lucky stars I am fortunate to have even known enough to get them to stop and then to call the county, test my son, and clean our home. But I think of the millions of kids around the country who are not so lucky. And I’m sad and scared at once. In short, this is just bullsh*t.
Thank you for reading.
P.S. Another concern/ something I have learned: one of the primary routes of lead (and other contaminants’) exposure is workers who go home to their own kids covered in dust from these projects. This is probably an extra serious problem here in LA where so much of the contracting workforce is made up of undocumented workers who have limited protection.

5 Responses to Lead Poisoning Prevention Month 2014: Baby Gus in Los Angeles

  1. Sidni Sobolik October 2, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    i work in the construction field and although my kids are grown we live in a neighborhood with many small children. When a guy bought our neighbor’s house to fix and sell it, all seemed fine until I saw a young man with no protective clothing, mask, etc. sanding the house. I went over and asked if they had tested for lead and of course the answer was no. And of course there was lead. I called in and reported them immediately, and the person who bought the house wasn’t too happy with me. A few days later the young hispanic man who had been sanding was wearing a mask, a suit, there was plastic covering everything and he was using a different method of paint removal. The guy who bought the house “forgave” me eventually and we became friendly, but it turned out that the man doing the sanding spoke very little english, went home each night to his own tiny kids and was basically dragging fine dusty poison in to his own children. I hope that your son Gus is completely fine, and I wish that people could begin to understand the seriousness of this problem.

  2. Mat October 3, 2014 at 3:43 am #

    Thanks for the well wishes, Sidni. I’m glad you spoke up – you may have protected that worker’s kids from further exposure.

    I wrote the above two weeks ago and have learned far more than I ever wanted to know about lead in the time since. I’ve been shocked to discover how complacent various government agencies are, though I suspect they are under-resourced to deal with complaints like mine.

    Our case was fully investigated and our yard was deemed “safe,” but, as you can probably imagine, it’s more than a bit difficult to trust the agency who prescribed the remediation described above. So we are stuck shouldering the cost of a certified lead professional who will be driven by genuine preventive concern rather than simply reducing his caseload. One of the issues we raised was that soil has a much greater allowance for lead (400 ppm) than dust yet, here in Southern California during a drought and after multiple heat waves, our soil is basically, well, dust. If I kick it, it creates a cloud and floats away. The agency tasked with responding to this concern simply let it drift in one ear and out the other after it had achieved the just under 400 ppm it needed.

    The most promising way I can imagine to prevent this kind of mess is for both the EPA and OSHA to crack down and make it much more routine to penalize property owners and contractors who do this type of thing. From what I’ve learned and those I’ve spoken with, too many contractors seem to treat lead paint as a punchline or see EPA protections against lead contamination as government over-reach. I suspect they are all too aware of how unlikely it is that they will be penalized. If they generally feared those penalties, I suspect they would roundly comply. And perhaps situations like this one could be avoided altogether.

  3. F. Stephen Masek October 3, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    So how do you-all vote? The Democrats running California, EPA, and OSHA have done nothing to fix this problem. We simply need to:

    1) Require that all pre-1978 residential buildings be tested by consultants using XRF machines, so everyone can then concentrate their efforts on lead-based paint where it exists.

    2) Change their regulations to focus on owners, not contractors, as owners are in charge and contractors are not.

    By the way, last year one the Democrats in California had a bill I helped kill to push usage of chemical lead test swabs, a technology which is not the state of the art, is easy to mis-use because people do not want to make all of the damage spots required, and which is more expensive than a proper XRF inspection. With XRF lead surveys averaging just $50 per unit for apartments, less for larger buildings, more for smaller buildings, and $600 for houses, there is no good excuse for not requiring surveys. It is a low one-time expense. Each room needs eight to 14 test locations – can you imagine all of those holes if swabs are used?

  4. Holly October 3, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

    This happened in our neighborhood too. My friend and I got the job shut down. Make sure your son doesn’t have MTHFR and is methylating properly. I may do a low dose of DMSA – look up the Andy Cutler protocol. I chelated my daughter at 2 years old was scared to start earlier but she has damage from her vaccines.

  5. Mat October 3, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    I vote Green locally and usually not at all a the state/national level. I would strongly support increased access to XRF technology. I think it’d be great if you could, for example, check one out at the local library. I inquired with a company about renting one, but the day rate was $600.

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