My name is Julianne. My daughter Trinity – who is now 4 – was born Sept 16th, 2009 at 37 weeks weighing in at a tiny 4 lbs 6 ozs with no amniotic fluid.
Our story is a little different then most I’ve heard…we unknowingly live a half a mile from an old smelter site filled with lead and arsenic that has been blowing through our town for almost 20 years now – and, due to a huge cover-up by some members of our local government – we were completely unaware of what was in our air and our soil when we inherited our home (from an aunt) and decided to make a life for our growing family here!
So with with no knowledge of the toxics we were being exposed to, and no explanation about what went wrong with that pregnancy, we were simply relieved after her birth– aside from being very small, she appeared perfectly healthy and came home in 24 hours from the hospital.
We do not know to this day if her low birth-weight could have been related to me unknowingly being repeatedly exposed to lead throughout my entire pregnancy or not.
[Editor’s note, recent research by Dr. Felicia Rabito indicates that even very low maternal blood lead levels found in the general population can correlate with low birth-weight of newborns, so one could easily conclude that maternal exposure to a smelter site throughout pregnancy would likely have a significant impact on a newborn’s birthweight.]
Fast forward a few years, to one day I will never forget. It was September 2013. I got a knock on my door from the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry), informing me that we lived dangerously close to the smelter site and that they would like to test me and my four children to see if they could have been affected from lead and arsenic in our soil (blowing over the years from the smelter site!) Of course I agreed.
I got a call a few weeks later, on a Saturday morning, from a doctor with ATSDR – my daughter tested positive with a Blood Lead Level (BLL) of 4.89 micrograms per deciliter. [The current CDC “level of concern” is a BLL of 5, and a level of 4.89 is essentially a 5.] My heart dropped –I felt blindsided! I was the one who encouraged her the summer before to plant her very own garden and to care for it herself so she could have a wonderful learning experience. Who knew that a simple and seemingly safe and innocent thing – like teaching my child about agriculture – could poison her, by exposing her to lead contaminated soil! I felt like I had let her down as mother; it was my job to protect her and instead I may have caused permanent damage to my baby without knowing!
The story then gets worse…
I took her to our doctor – who we had known and trusted for the last five years with all of our children – and what he said I will never forget:”We don’t really worry about lead exposure nowadays because it is very rare and uncommon.” (Mind you this man has a medical degree!) He agreed to do the test anyway after seeing her ATSDR test results and then we waited and waited and waited some more until one day I broke down (tired of waiting!) and called them. The nurse told me Trinity’s test was “‘negative’ and there is nothing to worry about”. I was baffled to say the least (little did I know they used a crappy test that just say “negative” or “positive”, with a “negative” reading of “less than 5” – no actual numbers)!
Not happy with their lack of concern (and dubious test results), I followed up with a another well-respected doctor who is also well educated in environmental contaminants. She (being the wonderful women she is) called my regular doctor and made him redo the test correctly – and guess what…. Trinity still had high levels of lead!
My next step was to contact our City Council rep – first by phone with no response.
Then e-mail – again nothing.
Finally, I contacted her on her private Facebook page, and… surprise…. nothing again (it may seem like I crossed a line with the last one but I was a mother desperate to do anything I could to save my child and others just like her.)
Fed up – and frankly mad as hell – I took my story to one of our local news stations, because something had to be done. I did my research, and learned our lives had already been changed forever not knowing if or how much my child had already been affected and what this may have already robbed her of in her future.
To my shock, the media jumped on it – and thank God they did, because City Council was then forced to do something this time and not once again sweep this issue under the rug like they had in the past (in my opinion, because we aren’t rich, we don’t own any businesses and frankly, in their eyes, we don’t matter because we don’t benefit them.)
So on November 18th (2013) they did a TV interview on my story and I came to find out a lot of parents were just as outraged and felt like I did, but were afraid to come forward too due to possible repercussions (potential eviction or because their immigration status may not have been on the up and up), but at that point, I knew I wasn’t alone and I no longer felt I had to hide – and I was determined to get answers about how our City Council sat back and did nothing for so longs knowing innocent people were being poisoned for over 20 years now!
After the story aired, it was time to take my daughter back the doctor to be retested to see if her levels were dropping or getting worse and to my surprise the whole feeling in the office changed – it was cold and uncaring. I didn’t understand – this was the same doctor I had trusted and had a great relationship with for the last five years, and who always made me feel like my children’s well-being was his first priority and now I was treated like a crazy lady who was making something out of nothing! (Later I found out why: it turns out doctors don’t study environmental contaminants in medical school – and unless they chose to research it themselves, they typically know very little about the issue.)
So, still focused (now more than ever) and on a mission, I went in front of our local Human Rights Commission to get them them to back us in getting a letter out to our Governor to declare our area a Superfund site – and they agreed!
Next was a town hall meeting where I begged them to draft the letter. The only part of that night that really sticks out in my head about what I did is that I asked my daughter to come the podium with me – so if they chose not to move forward with the Superfund letter they would be forced to look into that little child’s face and know that they just basically told her she wasn’t as important as property values, as well as a statement I made that, “You do not have the right to play Russian roulette with my children and their future.”
Through the grace of God and some help from the ATSDR, The EPA, County Commissioners and Dr. Nevin-Woods (our local go-to expert Dr. on the issue) and many other amazing people we did get a letter to the Governor who signed it to get us on the national Superfund registry.
As for our lives today, like I said, Trinity is now four years old; she is getting ready to start school in the fall and her development has been slower then most children her age. I worry about what damage has already been done so I am in the process of finding a school that can accommodate her should she need the extra help! I stay up nights filled with so many thoughts and emotions: guilt, anger and fear mostly of what my child’s future holds – and whether this stole from her a portion of her full potential in life already. We are still in the process of finding a doctor who is educated and open minded about lead and it’s effects on children (because she still is at BLL 4 today) but there are very few doctors win our area with that knowledge base .
We are taking it day by day and hoping for the best – but the fear and concerns will always be there.
I am still seen as the “crazy lady” in this town – by some who think I am over-reacting to “nothing”, however most of the people with that opinion are those with financial interests here – not an interest in the health and well-being of our children, people whose only concerns are about their properties and businesses – or who just haven’t taken time to do the research. I’ve come to terms with this and am actually proud of the fact that I know what I am talking about and am committed to doing what’s right – not just for my children, but for every other child in this area.
Julianne and other local advocates and progressive health professionals in Pueblo, Colorado are working on bringing a Lead Safe America Foundation outreach event to their town – with free toy testing, free soil testing, free blood lead testing, free lead-paint test kits for families and, hopefully, a free, open-to-the-public preview screening of MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic. If you or anyone you know would like to help by becoming a sponsor of this event (which we would love to schedule for early this summer – ideally June, 2014) please click the “Donate” button here and put a note in with your donation that it is “Designated to help with Pueblo, Colorado event.” Thank you!