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Lead Paint Poisoning
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Lead Poisoning Hurt Development of Woman’s Son

Apr 9, 2003 | Durham Herald Sun Sara Kerley’s life changed when she found out her home was poisoning her son.

After Kerley and her husband separated in 1997, she moved back to her childhood home on Worth Street, where her mother was still living. She was six-months pregnant with Brandon Kerley and with her came her 9-year-old son, Jeffrey Kerley.

About two years later, Kerley took Brandon for his second-year physical at Lincoln Community Health Center. Kerley found out her son’s body had been digesting lead, like it would calcium, as he played, ate and slept in a home with peeling lead-based paint.

Tests showed Brandon had a blood lead level of 18 micrograms per deciliter. It is unclear at what level lead affects each individual, but the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter can significantly impair behavioral, cognitive and physical functioning of children.

Lead can affect everyone, but children 6 and younger face particular danger from the exposure because their bodies are developing rapidly. Each child reacts to lead levels differently depending on factors such as nutrition.

The body can’t tell the difference between lead and calcium and absorbs it into the bloodstream, where it remains for a few weeks until the bones absorb it.

Kerley didn’t know what Brandon’s blood lead level meant, she said. But as she received information from the nurses and doctors from the Durham County Health Department, she learned that lead poisoning was the catalyst for her son’s tantrums and other development delays such as not walking or talking.

At a checkup a year before, Brandon’s skills were in line with the average 1-year-old. But tests taken at 2 years and 11 months old showed Brandon’s IQ had dropped. He couldn’t perform tasks that other children his age could, such as being able to copy circles or match two- and three-letter words.

Now Brandon is 5, and his learning and social skills are slowly improving, said Melvin Diggs, an exceptional-children research teacher at W.G. Pearson Elementary, where Brandon is a kindergartner. Brandon struggles to remember the content in simple books he read two days before, has speech problems and has an abnormally short attention span, even for a 5-year-old, Diggs said.

In 2002 Kerley was asked to become the coordinator of an organization called Durham Parents Against Lead.

"I am hoping more mothers will learn about lead testing because there are other Brandons out there," said Kerley, 33. "I am hoping to relieve someone else’s stress."

Durham Parents Against Lead, a group that works to raise awareness, and the Durham County Health Department are holding a community health fair and festival Saturday to inform the public about lead poisoning. Free lead tests will be offered to children 6 months to 6 years old from 2 to 5 p.m. at McDougald Terrace public housing complex, 1101 Lawson St.

Children who get tested will get their faces painted for free and food and drinks will be provided at the event, which will feature booths from local organizations.

When Kerley found out about the lead poisoning home she had just had a baby girl. She couldn’t hold down a job because her two boys, both with learning disabilities, required her to miss work too much. Kerley’s choices were to give her children to someone else, to become homeless, or wait for help in a home that was eating away at her son’s potential.

"I didn’t have too many choices. I know it was my job to keep them safe. And I knew it was my job to keep the house up," said Kerley, who had a heart attack and a triple bypass in December she attributed to the stress. "I didn’t have the resources, the funding."

Kerley got on a city program waiting list to have the home repaired and the high-lead areas covered and cleaned. The city has a program that uses federal funds to repair and make homes with lead-based paint safe. Her home was repaired in 2001.

Lead-based paint, commonly found in homes built before 1978, along with older plumbing fixtures, vinyl miniblinds, and lead-glazed ceramic pottery and leaded crystal are some common household lead hazards.

In low levels, lead can cause nervous system and kidney damage and learning disabilities. High levels of lead can result in poor bone and muscle development, severe digestive problems, and seizure and death.

Damage from lead can occur as soon as someone is exposed, said Ed Norman, environmental supervisor for the childhood lead program for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. But the longer the exposure the more severe the damage can be, he said.

The most important thing is to have children tested because you never know where lead could be, said Terrie Paynter, a lead nurse consultant for the Durham County Health Department. "Hopefully the sooner you catch it, if there is going to be any long-term effect, we can intercept that by getting those lead levels to go down," Paynter said.

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