Local Issues: Raising Kids in a Lead-Contaminated City

According to a news article from 29 Dec, 2009:

Ninety-three percent of the city’s housing stock was built before 1979, before lead was banned from paint. If the paint is intact, it does not pose a problem. However, when the paint chips and peels due to poor maintenance, dangerous toxins are exposed. Young children are particular susceptible because they touch the floor and windowsills, ingesting the poison, which can cause developmental and cognitive delays. (Read the complete article here.)

My husband and I live in a loft apartment in Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in a building that was once a brewery. In many ways, the apartment is a dream: we have 15ft. ceilings, concrete floors, over 2000 sq/ft of open living space, and pay pennies per square foot compared to other folks in our city. In other ways, though, this apartment is a nightmare: it’s impossible to properly heat, the landlord neglects normal maintenance issues in the units and the building, and my husband has had to invest his own time and energy into the most basic of improvements on our place. It’s a trade-off. We get a ton of space for cheap, but we have to work to make it comfortable.

When our son was born, we considered leaving, but also made a plan for the work we’d need to do on our apartment if we stayed. Insulating the back of the apartment and building bedrooms in that section, closing/insulating the ceiling, painting the floor, and rebuilding the bathroom were all on the list. Frankly, the past year has gone by too quickly and we’ve been too tired to do all that work ourselves (not to mention unwilling to foot the bill).

The one issue, though, that keeps haunting us is the open ceiling, which is basically just the floorboards of the unit above us. Not only does it mean there is no sound barrier between us and our neighbors, but that everything from water spilt on the floor above to the everyday dust from walking has the potential to end up in our apartment. Needless to say, keeping our floor clean is like conquering Goliath. As soon as our son started crawling, the open ceiling and the dust the results became our primary concern. This brings me back to the issue of lead contamination.

At my son’s nine-month doctor’s visit, he was subject to a routine blood test to check for lead contamination in his blood. As any mother would be, I was happy to comply and, as any mother living in the City of Cincinnati should be, I was anxious to hear the results. Knowing that my apartment is A) built long before 1979 and B) owned by a man who is not particularly interested in making improvements left me concerned that not only the paint on our walls but also the everyday dust on the floor could be poison for my son.

A month later, I got a very calm and courteous voicemail message from a nurse named Donna:

“Ms McEwan, I’m calling about the lead test results for your son. First of all, I would like you to know that he is NOT lead poisoned, but the test did show signs of lead contamination in his blood and I’d like to speak with you about it.”

The next week involved a lot of phone calls, internet searches, panicky floor cleanings and “what if” conversations with my husband until we were able to have our home visit from the nurse and discuss the issue of lead in general and our apartment and baby specifically.

To make a long story short, my son’s lead contamination level at the time of the test was 8.3 migrograms per decileter of blood. A level of 10 is considered “poisoned,” and the City can do very little to help us unless my son has been poisoned (i.e. enforcing lead abatement laws with my landlord, inspecting my apartment to pinpoint the contamination). Thanks to the help of the nurse who visited us and took a sample, we know that the paint on our walls is not lead paint and so we can assume the paint dust falling from the ceiling is not contaminated either (since they appear to be a result of the same paint job). Because that was our assumed source of contamination, we’re totally stumped as to how our son could have ingested or inhaled the lead.

Some thoughts:

– The nurse told us that all the rehab work being done in OTR could be producing lead dust to such an extent that my son could have inhaled it. Could this have happened just walking up and down Vine St. in the past few months?

– I would assume our building has lead pipes somewhere down below. Although the pipes “should not” produce lead-contaminated water, what if they do? We’re going to purchase a cheap (and often unreliable) lead test to see.

– We’ve been very careful about the toys we’ve purchased for our son–where they’re made, what they’re made of, etc. But we’ve let some toys slip in from friends and family members. What if my son ingested lead from a cheap, foreign-made toy? We’re seriously considering getting rid of all of them, just in case.

– When asked to compare the severity of my son’s 8.3 lead level, the nurse said that a child can ingest one single lead-contaminated paint chip and their blood be poisoned to a level 20. So, there’s a chance that my son’s lead exposure was a one-time fluke that will soon be a memory.

So, until we get connected with the Lead Clinic at Children’s Hospital so our son can be watched closely for further exposure, my husband and I are playing detective to find the source and taking extra precautions to get our baby’s blood healthy (via extra iron and calcium and lots of hand-washing).

I’m curious if any other folks out there have had experience with lead abatement in your buildings or a lead scare with your own children.
Ideas about the source?

Another point of interest: There are all sorts of theories and rumors around the environmental health world that suggest lead poisoning (and not poor parenting, education, or culture) as the primary explanation for the high presence developmental delays, ADD, and behavioral problems in poor urban youth. This theory holds weight, I believe, if you consider that many families in cities live in rental properties and not family-owned homes, do not have the financial means to abate their own living spaces, and may not have the education to know the dangers of lead and how to prevent lead poisoning in children.

For further information about lead poisoning, visit the Children’s Hospital website or read this Wikipedia article.

3 thoughts on “Local Issues: Raising Kids in a Lead-Contaminated City

  1. Every major city has contaminated soil. Cincinnati soil has lead, asbestos and coal particulates and dozens of other things you would probably rather not know about.Suburban soil, former farmland soil, has farming chenmicals. There is no "safe place" you can go, and you have to use common sense. New Construction homes have a variety of chemicals in them as well. Unless you want to keep your kid in a bubble, it's just the world we live in.Lead particles get kicked up into the air whenever construction on old buildings is done. Normal traffic kicks up lead dust. You also get lead from "home grown organic' vegetables grown locally that you might buy at a farmers market. People plant gardens thinking they are being "green" yet they are growing things like tomatoes in contaminated soil that have higher levels of lead and chemicals. If you tested most "locally grown organic produce" you'd be surprised at the levels of chemicals present even if it is organic. My "best advice" is a good air purifier, make sure ductwork is cleaned professionally on an annual basis and keep things as clean as you can, especially if you open windows in summer. Old buildings are not airtight. Interestingly many of my clients are now retrofitting their open lofts with things like walls and ceilings and covered ductwork because of dusta nd noise issues.Lead contamination can come from your local playground or park. It is everywhere in an urban environment and with kids you just have to accept it's out there, and test your kids periodically.You may want to have your own lead levels tested as well.

  2. I think this is a very important issue, and deserves lots of ink because this is one of the many reason people move out of their old buildings when they have children. I've been concerned about lead since our son was born almost 9 years ago in OTR. since then, we have lived in 2 old buildings with lead paint and lead pipes. We have had the children tested several times and the levels thankfully were normal. I have seen old lead pipes, and I have cut them in half, and you can definitely see that there is an interior lining of calcium that actually separates the water from the lead. If a building is completely rehabbed, (like the one we are in now)then all the lead pipes are typically removed and replaced with copper and plastic. And who is to say the plastic is really safer?The most likely source is the painted woodwork, especially the window sash and trim. This can be kept safe either by painting, or by frequent cleaning. For years we resisted, but finally we got a good vacuum and that can help if you have carpeted areas.BTW, I know who your landlord is, and he is a bad egg. But like you said it is a trade off for the space.

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