Good morning. Thank you for your efforts to highlight lead poisoning and for giving me the opportunity to share our family's story. I am the mother of a little boy named Sam, who is poisoned by lead. I am the director of the Maine Lead Action Project and I also serve on the Board of the Alliance To End Childhood Lead Poisoning.
Lead poisoning entered our lives soon after we purchased our 170-year old home. It is a late 19th century colonial, nestled in a nice residential, coastal neighborhood in Portland, Maine. My husband and I chose an older home, like many of us do, for it's charm, beautifully detailed woodwork, and its stately graciousness. As eager, first-time homeowners, we soon began our much-needed renovations.
What we didn't know, until our child became inexplicably ill, was that our home contained lead. We were unaware of the dangers, and the serious, permanent health effects lead could have on our children.
I first became acquainted with the topic of lead poisoning in an article from a very popular parenting book; as a first time mother and voracious reader, I absorbed every bit of information about child development. I came across a half page devoted to childhood lead poisoning, which in a nutshell, explained the rapid rate a child's brain grows from birth to age six and the irreparable, cognitive damage lead could do to children. I didn't have to read another word, at my urging my son's pediatrician did a lead screen on Sammy and delivered the news that, he indeed had elevated blood lead levels. He was screened much more frequently from 6-months to 2-years old; his levels climbing higher with each visit. This came as a total surprise to my husband and me, because we were now religiously cleaning AND washing Sam's hands and toys much more often. This was quite honestly, the only preventative advice we had received.
I am sure many other parents of lead-poisoned children have heard their own public health department imply, 'Go home, feed your child better, watch him more carefully, clean your house, and by the way. . . good luck!' Though it may not be said outright, this is the message that is clearly being delivered. Why are we, as parents, made to feel that we are somehow responsible for the poisoning of our children? Does childhood lead poisoning end with the distribution of brightly colored brochures, frequent hand washings, and ABC's of good nutrition? These are the Band-Aids covering up a much bigger problem - toxic paint lurking in our country's housing.
Sadly, Sam was diagnosed with lead poisoning soon after his second birthday. As a parent, it is heartbreaking knowing that the home you provided for your child was slowly poisoning him everyday. There is no deeper feeling of sadness, frustration and helplessness.
In order to avoid poisoning Sam once again, and endangering our daughter, Alexandra, who had just started crawling, we chose to move out while lead abatement was performed on our home. I cannot emphasize enough the challenge of coping with the stress of caring for a sick child, relocating, and dealing with the financial burden - at times it was unbearable. Looking back, I'm not quite sure how we pulled it of.
I now have to believe the worst is behind us, and Sammy will have a happy childhood, and normal, productive school years. But for many children, lead poisoning prevents them from succeeding in school or in life.
Though many other stories may begin much differently than mine - maybe in an apartment in Chicago, on a farm in rural Louisiana or in a home on the West coast - many of them share a common theme: Our children served as the lead detectors alerting us to the hazards of living in a home contaminated with lead-based paint.
If there is one thing that I have learned from my experiences is that the system set up to protect our children from lead poisoning . . . is, sadly, reactionary.
Screening children for lead in their blood is important to finding and treating sick children. But allowing children to serve as lead-detectors is no solution to the environmental disease of lead poisoning - it's an immoral approach. In fact, health departments' preoccupation with screening children often obscures the need for and deflects resources from finding and fixing hazardous houses.
We can make sure that what happened to my children doesn't happen to other children. But, to do so, we have to confront the reality of lead poisoning - this is a disease that a child catches from a house.
There is only one real way to protect children from lead poisoning - and that is to prevent and control hazards in children's homes. We need to find the homes with lead-based paint hazards and control those hazards before a child is exposed.
And, as our family's experience proves, educating parents about hand washing, and nutrition and hygiene will not solve this problem. Children don't need to be told to eat their vegetables and wash their hands - they need homes that are safe from lead hazards. What is politely called "parent education" really amounts to passing the buck. Of course, nutrition, hygiene, and housekeeping are beneficial but the fact is that my home was dangerous - and millions of homes across the country are still today dangerous to children, not because of any lapse in parenting, but because the lead industry cared more about making money than safety. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the danger of its product and the availability of safer alternatives, the lead paint manufacturers knowingly marketed a poisonous product for decades.
To add insult to the injury they caused, the paint industry is a big proponent of "parent education." Benjamin Moore congratulates itself on helping communities hold "fun and educational" events about lead poisoning for families. Well, I want Benjamin Moore to know that lead poisoning is no fun.
Children and families have paid the price for the industry's misconduct. Taxpayers have paid the price for the industry's misconduct - hundreds of millions of local, state, and federal dollars. As a parent and a taxpayer, I'm tired of paying. I want to know when the companies that caused this problem are going to help pay for solving this problem.
We as a country can protect children from lead poisoning. We know what to do, what solutions work. We have set the national goal of ending this disease by 2010. But solutions cost money. It is time for the lead industry to pay its fair share. And it's time that everyone - communities, government, and industry - to do the job right to eliminate lead poisoning once and for all.
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