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Lead Paint Poisoning
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In His Own Back Yard

Nov 13, 2003 | Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier

When Brenda Music learned in July that her three-year-old son Sean had lead poisoning, she racked her brain for a cause.

Sean rarely played in anyone else's yard, he didn't eat paint chips, he didn't lick the walls.

Since then, her extensive research compiled in a thick black binder has taught her the aforementioned causes are common misconceptions.

Sean was lead poisoned from two summers playing in his own backyard, where lead was in the air.

"The backyard was the last place I would have thought something could have hurt him," Music says. "It's very upsetting as a parent."

Brutal summers and extreme winters deteriorated the exterior lead paint on the Music home, turning it to dust, floating in the air and settling on toys. The hand-to-mouth behavior of children makes them more susceptible than adults to lead poisoning, and the sweet taste of lead-based paint does nothing to discourage children from putting lead-covered items in their mouths.

Any home built before 1978 could contain lead-based paint. Sixty percent of Iowa homes were built before 1960. The Music home was built in the '40s.

Sean's diagnosis was an accident. In June, Sean's father was laid off from his job, at which point the family qualified for WIC, a health and nutrition program through Operation Threshold.

Operation Threshold partners with the Black Hawk County Health Department, where it is routine to test all children for lead poisoning.

Mike Prideaux, the lead program coordinator at the Health Department, tested Sean and found his lead levels to be 40 micrograms per deciliter

A safe, normal level is 10.

"Ironically, they were very lucky to be unemployed short term and eligible for WIC. Otherwise he never would have been tested," Prideaux says. "Lead poisoning is totally asymptomatic so a blood test is crucial."

In hindsight, Music considers her husband's job loss a miracle for their son. Prideaux arrived to test the Music's home for lead just hours before it was scheduled to be power washed.

"That would have caused a higher concentration of lead fumes and could have even put Sean in the hospital," Music says.

Iowa has no law requiring physicians to test for lead poisoning. Sean's doctor didn't think he was at high risk so the boy was never tested.

There is no treatment once diagnosed. In severe cases, doctors can perform chelation, which flushes lead from the body, but it is usually too strong a treatment for small children. Sean is on special vitamins that have lowered his lead levels from 40 to 22. He is tested every month, and his house has been refinished to prevent further lead exposure.

"It interferes with brain cell formation, interferes with the central nervous system. You don't see immediate affects. A child could have trouble in school years later, or behavioral problems a lot of things that would never be connected to lead poisoning. It's relatively silent and the most preventable pediatric condition in the U.S. today. It's an odd malady, a medical problem without a strictly medical solution."

Two full summers of exposure caused the Sean to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His speech is underdeveloped, and doctors also think he exhibits mild autistic traits. The full damage will not be clear until Sean hits adolescence.

"It's hard to see your child hurting from something you couldn't see and couldn't stop," Music says.

Music is now lobbying Iowa congressmen to draft legislation that would require doctors to test children for lead, regardless of their risk.

"Everyone I meet on the street, and everyone I know personally, I tell Sean's story," Music says. "I urge parents to have their child tested, preferably in the summer when children spend the most time outside. Take it into their own hands."

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