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The Lead Poisoning Of Our Children Goes Beyond Toxic Toys


February 10, 2008

Damien is scooting around his family's two-bedroom apartment in Hartford's South End.

At 2 1/2 , the bright-eyed boy is into everything. Then, Melissa Gagne, his 19-year-old mother, lifts her baby's top. There, stretching from his thin chest to his tummy is an angry red scar, the reminder of one of his open-heart surgeries. Damien, whom his mother calls "my little soldier," has endured three operations since birth.

Then, in January, Damien tested high for lead 20 micrograms per deciliter. When a child tests 10 or higher, the city is contacted. At 20, a child's house and its surroundings are inspected. If lead is found, the landlord must take responsibility to get the lead out; the city follows the child through the medical process.

Toxic toys are only part of the problem. As much as we need to pay attention to the playthings we hand babies, far more children are sickened by toxic chemicals in their homes, including old lead paint.

A bill in front of the Connecticut legislative environmental committee seeks to limit toxic chemicals in children's products, and that's important. But what about the children in Connecticut's older housing stock?

Damien is among 310,000 other children nationwide who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have 10 or more micrograms per deciliter of lead in their bodies. Any level of lead is bad. Lead attacks the developing systems of children, who are our canaries in a coal mine that is vast in older cities like Hartford. Paint manufacturers phased out lead in their products in the late '70s, but lead is not a thing of the past.

"What we know is that anything that was built before '78 has at least the possibility of having lead paint," says Martha Page, environmental health manager of Hartford's Department of Health and Human Services. "That describes close to 90 percent of Hartford's housing stock."

If lead paint is intact no chips or dust, says Page chances are the family is safe. Page herself lived in an older house in the West End that included lead paint, but the surfaces were intact.

Not every Hartford residence is so maintained. On a visit to Damien's apartment, his grandfather, Mark Gagne, motions to a front window painted white and a radiator painted silver where, beneath what looks like coats of newer paint, the old lead paint has cracked into what looks like alligator skin.

It takes very little to poison a child, says Page. The possibilities have frightened the Gagnes enough that if they have to leave their home (the family includes Damien's father, Alberto Dejesus), Mark Gagne, who works at a Bloomfield manufacturing plant, says they'll leave everything behind.

"People wonder why Susie can't read in second grade, and come to find out she was poisoned when she was 2," says Page. Even lead readings that are within legal limits have an effect on a child's development. "[Even] if it is below 10," says Page, "there's a significant body of evidence that that child will lose IQ points. If you've got kids who are challenged on so many other levels, five or six IQ points may mean the difference between finishing high school or not."

In 2005, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 74 percent of Hartford's children under age 2 were tested for lead, says Page. For children under 6, that number drops to 43 percent. A new law dictates that next January, all children younger than 3 must be tested for lead. Lead poisoning is "the saddest preventable disease," Page says.

Money is available for landlords to remove lead, says Amy McLean Salls, executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Research Group and project coordinator of Lead Action for Medicaid Primary Prevention. Her organization encourages homeowners to be proactive and not wait until a child is affected. Making housing lead-safe often means replacing windows and fixing peeling lead paint surfaces, she says.

"We get a lot of landlords voluntarily coming into the program, though not as many as we would like," says Salls. "Most landlords know they don't want to mess around with this. Many of them do want to do the right thing. What it comes down to is money."

Doesn't it always?

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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