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Bill & Melinda Gates – Please call me.


Avi, Charlie Parker & A.J. – at home in Portland.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dear Bill & Melinda,

In 2005 my children were poisoned when a contractor failed to follow lead-safe work practices during the repainting of our historic home in Portland, Oregon.

I have since learned that childhood lead poisoning is the single most expensive environmental illness in America today. A 2011 report demonstrated that all environmental illnesses combined conservatively cost the United States $76.6 billion annually, and that still – today, in the 21st century – childhood lead poisoning is more than 66% of that number ($50.9 billion annually.)

In 2014 lead poisoning is still the single-most costly environmental illness – even though most people have the impression that lead-paint poisoning in children was solved with the 1978 ban on lead-paint.

$50.9 billion is also a very conservative estimate that was based on relevant statistics [a valuation of I.Q. loss for children with a blood lead level (BLL) of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher] from the time of the research analyzed for the report.

Since this report was released, the CDC’s “level of concern” was lowered from a BLL of 10 to a BLL of 5. Taking into account this new stricter standard (along with the fact that all public agency statements now include the following: “there is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood”) – in addition to costs not even considered in the study (see image below that highlights some of the costs not included in the $50.9 billion) – the actual annual financial impact of this wholly preventable environmental illness is [again conservatively] more than twice that 2011 estimate (closer to $100 billion per year!) – and these numbers just estimate the cost in one country – the United States, not the world.

    Scene from MisLEAD; Costs not covered by the 2011 Economic Impact Study

Scene from MisLEAD; Costs not covered by the 2011 Economic Impact Study

Why does this matter? And how is this relevant to the work of the Gates Foundation?

Well, it’s simple really: Lead-poisoning has been very thoroughly-studied and is now known by the scientific community as one of the most significant reasons for cognitive impairments seen in children in the U.S. today—ADD, ADHD and Autism Spectrum symptoms are just the tip of the iceberg. These impairments drastically diminish a child’s ability to learn – especially in a conventional public school environment.

Additionally, the financial impact was specifically calculated based on a value assigned to lost I.Q. points. While the impact on total intellect is a vitally important factor to consider, that is trivial compared to some of the other impacts of early childhood lead exposure…

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 8.25.20 PM

Avi, 2014

At 9 years of age, my son Avi actually has a very high I.Q. (130—or around the 97th percentile)—yet due to dramatically impaired visual memory (his visual memory tests place him in the 4th percentile), as a result of his lead exposure, he cannot read or write anywhere near grade level—nor even as well as his 5-year-old brother! And his brain damage is both permanent, and it’s full scope still unknown (lead poisoning’s signature damage to the frontal lobe and the consequent impairment to the development of critical Executive Function can’t be assessed until much later —teen years and beyond—as that part of the brain is not finished developing until into the mid-twenties.)

lead-safe_stars1As a mother of lead-poisoned children with a background in both non-profit administration (USF) and in theater and film (NYU’s TSOA), I did what there was to do in response to coming up repeatedly against the wall of ignorance surrounding this topic in our culture (cultural ignorance caused – in large part, by the lead industry’s financial and political influence in our government that has persisted since the hazards of lead-paint dust were widely documented at the turn of the (last) century)… I started a 501(c)3 nonprofit advocacy agency for lead poisoning prevention, co-authored legislation and realizing that so much more needed to be done to really create the necessary sea change in awareness, made a documentary film to directly educate parents about the issue! Please watch the trailer here:

It literally takes just a microscopic amount of lead dust to poison a child and cause irreversible damage, yet most people know nothing about it – OR they wrongly assume a child needs to “eat paint chips” to be poisoned.

Also of significant and relevant interest to the Gates Foundation (in terms of your mission and funding priorities), in addition to the potential to cause significant cognitive impairments: lead poisoning also causes immune system deficiencies which allow for other diseases to take root, thrive and spread. I hope you will agree this – in combination with the impact on a child’s ability to learn – makes the issue of early childhood lead poisoning (and the importance of preventing it) truly relevant to the work of the Gates Foundation on many levels.

The primary tool we have for eradicating this incredibly costly—yet 100% percent preventable—environmental illness that is found in every state, city, and town in our country is educating every parent in the country, so they are aware that:

  1. lead poisoning does not discriminate (any child from any socioeconomic or demographic background can be poisoned from lead in their environment) and
  2. it is possible to get and keep the lead out of your home, school, daycare and playground – once you know what to look for and where to look for it.

Many companies have sponsored the work of the Lead Safe America Foundation (the nonprofit I founded in 2011) with either cash or in-kind support and they include:

  • 3M
  • ThermoFisher Scientific / Niton
  • Wells Fargo Bank
  • Magellan Diagnostics / LeadCare II
  • Dustless Technologies
  • Lifetime Television
  • Simonton Windows
  • The Who (Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey)
  • DriveSavers Data Recovery
  • Annie’s Homegrown
  • Green Toys, Inc.
  • Marshall’s Farm Honey
  • …and many, many more (more than 800 individuals and businesses have supported us in some way since were founded in 2011.)

I’m currently traveling the country sharing the rough-cut of the film and speaking about lead poisoning and lead poisoning prevention and the hosts of these presentations have been equally noteworthy:

  • The City and County of San Francisco
  • EPA Headquarters in Denver
  • The State of Colorado Department of Health and the Environment
  • The Department of Public Health for the State Of Minnesota in collaboration with the University of Minnesota Department of Public Health
  • OHSU Medical Center
  • Detroit Children’s Medical Center
  • America Family Children’s Hospital with the University of Wisconsin
  • The Department of Public Health for the City of St. Louis
  • The Department of Public Health for the State of New Hampshire
  • The Department of Public Health for the State of Wisconsin & for the City of Racine, Wisconsin (who partnered with SC Johnson)
  • Friends of the Earth/ The David Brower Center in Berkeley
  • and an upcoming series of presentations this week and next month at Nike World Headquarters here in Oregon.

How could the Gates Foundation help you ask?
How could you help me to educate parents – to protect children from being poisoned?
How could you help to preserve the educational potential and intellectual capacity of our nation’s children?
…. I have two ideas:

Idea 1)
Please follow Nike’s & SC Johnson’s lead and invite Lead Safe America to come present to your employees (at your HQ) about this important issue. Early June would be opportune. At Nike we are doing two days of events; the first day (5/22) is a free toy-testing event for employees. For this week’s presentation, Nike employees have been invited to bring in things to have them tested for toxicants – I will have my Niton XRF spectrometer with me and give them instant readings – and determine whether their [toy, dish, antique, piece of jewelry, etc.] contains lead, cadmium, mercury or arsenic…  [While consumer goods like toys, dishes and jewelry are not a common cause for lead-exposure, from an advocacy perspective they are a great way to introduce people to the concept of environmental toxicity in everyday things – a concept that might otherwise be too confronting for them to consider, for example – if you started by looking at toxicants in their home.] We are then doing a second presentation (6/4) during which I am sharing the rough-cut of my film with Nike Employees (as part of their volunteerism and employee education programs—sponsored through their on-site daycare for the children of employees.)  I will also be making free lead-paint test kits available to all Nike Employees, so they can test the paint in their home for lead (these test-kits are donated to the Lead Safe America Foundation by 3M.)

Idea 2)
You could invite me to submit a grant proposal to help get a powerful and important tool for lead-poisoning prevention into the hands of every county health agency (and major U.S. city agencies) in our country: ThermoFisher Scientific / Niton donated an XRF spectrometer  (approximate value $40,000) for me to use while working on the film and related outreach and education projects; it’s a non-radioactive source model that is used by the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for toxicants. It generates a highly accurate elemental makeup analysis—in parts per million (ppm)—for anything containing metals. This is an amazing and unparallelled “magic wand” for instantly detecting toxicants (in consumer goods, soil, and painted surfaces)- and it is an incredible tool for raising awareness about the toxicity around us.

There are just 3,143 counties in the United States,
& most do not have the resources to purchase a tool like this one.

I would like to request that – over three years – a grant of $135,000,000 be made to the Lead Safe America Foundation (LSAF) from the Gates Foundation (or from Microsoft Corporation, or from you personally) so that LSAF can create and administer a program through which LSAF procures and distributes XRF instruments to each of these 3,143 counties (and several major cities) [3,143 of these top-of-the-line XRFs would together cost about $126,000,000.] LSAF staff would then work with and train county employees – demonstrating our outreach event model and would work with program administrators to tailor our curriculum for outreach and education to their area and demographics using this unique tool and its capabilities as a centerpiece.  A fundamental and unique crucial element of this program is that we would engage parents of lead-poisoned children in each county to work directly with these county programs, making the issue (and the actions that need to be taken for prevention) personal to their constituents.

We have a model for success with this, as—even on a shoe-string budget and with just one advocate and one donated XRF—I have been personally holding outreach events around the country over the past two years (Ohio, Wisconsin, California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Vermont, Missouri, Minnesota, South Carolina, Massachusetts, etc.)

We also have a solid track record. The outreach program model we have developed has worked to educate families, encourage testing and prevent lead-poisoning/ protecting children everywhere we present.

I’ve been talking to people about talking to you about this for years, saying how quickly and easily the Gates Foundation (or you – Bill and Melinda personally) could make a difference by getting this tool in the hands of every public agency – yet I haven’t yet made the request… so here it is. Please consider it.

Once we have this program working here in the U.S., we can easily replicate the effort overseas. Childhood lead poisoning is holding us back (as a species) – and – in supporting this project – you have the power to change the world.

Thank you for considering this. Hopefully (per idea #1), I’ll be seeing you up in Washington State sometime soon (just a hop skip and a drive from our home and Lead Safe America Headquarters here in Portland – so just say “when.”)


Tamara Rubin
Mother of Lead Poisoned Children
Executive Director
Lead Safe America Foundation

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