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Lead Poisoning Prevention Month 2014: Baby Silas in Nebraska

October 17, 2014
From Mama Nikki in Nebraska

Photo by Elayne Woods Photography

Photo by Elayne Woods Photography

We found out our son Silas had lead poisoning after his one year well check, when his pediatrician screened him for a blood test since we live in an older home. Built in 1922, our home is in a protected historic area and is in great condition. We purchased it two years ago as our dream home, and it didn’t need any interior work except some cosmetic adjustments to our taste. It was (and still is) a place we envisioned being full of life: a place we’d raise a family and potentially stay in for a long time.

Neither my husband or I had ever heard much about lead poisoning, and only vaguely remembered signing some paperwork about it when we bought the house. There wasn’t any chipping or old paint in the house (so we thought), so it was a surprise when Silas’ blood levels came back at 5.6 after a venous draw. Our pediatrician said it “wasn’t too high” and after a chat with a guy at the health department (who also said it wasn’t high enough to warrant concern), I was not too worried. We thought we’d easily discovered the source: a handmade table from a local woodworker, which was made of antique barn wood and had old paint on it. I thought, surely that was the source. So I set it on the front porch, didn’t let Silas play near it, and didn’t think much more of it. He was so healthy, after all! I let everything sit quietly in the back of my mind, waiting for the followup blood test. Silas did seem to be a late talker, and I occasionally wondered if it was related to the lead in his system, but he was/is still within the range of normal. I told myself I would not act on fear, so we just waited.


Photo by Nikki Moore

Six months later when Silas was 18 months old, his follow-up blood draw came back and his levels had DOUBLED—it was now at 11. At that point I finally gave myself permission to begin truly researching, because I needed to face the honest realities of what could happen.

I cried a lot as I looked into the long-term prognosis possibilities. I had to accept the idea of a child who may need help with learning, speaking, and a multitude of other developmental and social skills. At least, those were possibilities. It was (and still is) very hard for some folks to believe there was/is anything wrong with him – he exhibits no symptoms that we know of, was a really early mover/walker, has great motor skills, and has always been a very healthy kid (at 20 months now, he has only been ill once in his life, and didn’t even visit the doctor for it). We have always been very careful about his diet and exposure to unhealthy things – he has always been given mostly organic whole foods, very little sugar/grains, only a few select vaccinations, and he is still breastfed on top of it all. So the realities of what lead poisoning could be, were really hard to swallow. Also, if I had done my due diligence when his first test was high at 12 months, we would have taken action much sooner. We also should have insisted on a test a month later, rather than waiting the suggested six months. I will always live with that regret.

We didn’t know what to do first when we got these new bloodwork results. We knew we needed to find the real source, so we called the health department again, and after a bit of a hassle, arranged for someone to come do some testing at our home. We had wracked our brains about possible sources of lead, and had quite a list for the state health inspector to test for us. Nearly everything tested was a resounding “negative” (which was good news and also bad news at the same time) and he was almost stumped. With the help of the XRF instrument, though, we discovered the exterior trim of our house (which was, admittedly, in poor condition) had lead paint under the top layer, and was likely being tracked into the house in the form of lead-tainted dust. My husband and I decided we would simply hire someone to come strip the paint off the trim and repaint, which would be a quick job, and then we would be done with it. (It’s only the trim we are talking about – our exterior walls are brick and stucco.) In the meantime, we started hand washing our floors every couple of days, a considerable chore. Since it turned out there was also a smallish level of lead in our bathtub, we began bathing Silas in one of those little plastic baby tubs that sits inside the big tub. I also purchased a set of home lead tests and started testing things around our house that we had overlooked when the inspector was there: toys, furniture, etc.

kitchenThings changed quickly when I tested the INSIDE of our painted kitchen cabinets—and found lead in an under layer of paint. (The cabinet doors had tested negative, and we didn’t initially think the insides would be any different.) The paint had looked fine until we examined it really close, but once we did, we realized the extent of the problem: chipping paint around and above all of our dishes, pantry food, tupperware, pots and pans, glasses and plates, spices, appliances…everything we kept in the kitchen was potentially lead-tainted! I remembered with horror how we had let Silas play inside a few of the drawers and cupboards where we kept baby-safe items for him. He had literally been standing in lead dust, and chewing on things that probably had lead dust on them, and every time we opened or closed a drawer or cabinet, we set off a new round of lead dust to settle in the kitchen and be spread around the house!

Okay, new plan. Washing down the floors, even every night, was doing precious little to help the problem, which we had thought was primarily “exterior”. Now we realized a major hazard was buried in the very heart of our home, the kitchen. Mentally and emotionally, it was hard for me to accept this. But we had to act quickly.

Remember, I had already been looking around for someone to fix up the trim of our house. I’d had very little luck with this, despite dozens of phone calls and emails. The owner of a highly recommended local hazard abatement firm finally took pity on me (after several calls to their office where I begged them to at least send me to a company who could help me!). She came to our house the day after I found lead in the cabinets, and did a thorough consultation on her own time and off the books. (For various reasons I now understand, it’s almost impossible to find qualified residential lead paint abatement specialists.) This expert gave and/or lent us all the things we needed to professionally de-lead our home, something that would have cost us many thousands of dollars to hire out if we had been even able to find someone. (She and other experts recommended that Silas be removed from the house until it was completely de-leaded, so he got to spend a lot of time at Grandma and Gwindowsrandpa’s for a few days of intense cleaning.)

“Think of your home as being covered in dog poop. If you walk in a poopy room, your feet will bring poop into the other rooms. If you set a poopy thing down in a clean room, you need to clean around that spot again.” That was the advice of our consultant. So we began the process of de-pooping, er, de-leading, our home. De-leading meant vacuuming and wiping down nearly every square inch of our house and possessions. There was a specific way we had to keep clean rooms and contaminated rooms, while being careful not to re-contaminate the clean rooms. We also ripped out carpet and threw away all of our beautiful area rugs (it would cost more to clean them than to purchase new ones). With the help of our wonderful family and friends, we accomplished the vast majority of this tedious work in less than a week. Our kitchen cabinets were repainted with a special lead-blocking paint. Our home is now close to being lead-free, as far as we know, on the inside at least.door

We are planning to do most of the exterior work ourselves, which will be significant. Since the lead based paint has been flaking off onto the ground below for many years, we will need to remove all the landscaping shrubs and plants around the house so the tainted soil underneath can be removed and replaced. Before that happens, our shoes stay outside and we are periodically cleaning the floor with a special cleaner to catch any stray particles.

In the meantime, we learned (and are still learning!) about various supplements and dietary changes we can implement to possibly help Silas’ body get rid of the lead that is already there. At the time of writing, his blood lead level is down to 9, but we have a long ways to go. The blood level is easier and faster to reduce than the tissue and bone levels, so the blood level isn’t a complete picture of what’s happening in his body. We are moving in the right direction though. (There’s not any reason the blood lead level should be above 0, or more precisely, 0.016 – which is the historically natural background level of lead in the human body, so basically 0 is our goal.)

Our story isn’t over. Our home is still very disordered, a constant reminder that this is fresh and raw. We will be doing further home testing to confirm that we’ve gotten the place clean, and Silas will need blood draws every month for a long time. The hardest part about all of this is that we have no idea at this point how the lead poisoning will manifest itself in his future, and what physical problems he may face (if any). Even if he does not end up with childhood developmental delays, he may be at risk for bone, heart and kidney problems for the rest of his life. We can only wait. It is hard to release the illusion of having total control over our child’s well-being. Silas is, and always has been, in the hands of his all-seeing Creator. I pray constantly that God will keep him healthy, and more importantly, that God will equip us with the strength we need to help our sweet son face any future difficulties with grace and wisdom.

2 Responses to Lead Poisoning Prevention Month 2014: Baby Silas in Nebraska

  1. Deirdre McMurtry October 25, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

    Doesn’t the EPA help cover those costs if you apply specifically for helping remove or reduce lead poisoning qualities of a house and yard? My friends had their house painted and got some funds to help with landscaping, but it wasn’t bad so the EPA didn’t cover everything

    • Tamara November 9, 2014 at 8:26 pm #

      There are grands through HUD in some cities and counties. The grants are income dependent and are not generally through the EPA. Some parts of the country run out of grant funds early in their cycle since so many families are applying for them. Other parts of the country do not have enough applicants for the funds. They are often through the city-based housing department – and that is a good place to start. Folks should be looking for a “Lead Hazard Remediation Grant.”

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