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Lead Paint Poisoning
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Young Victim Suffers Effects of Poisoning

Apr 20, 2003 | Pensacola News Journal Lead poisoning has defined Tyron Bender`s life.

Diagnosed when only 1 year old, the toxic metal severely limited the development of his brain and central nervous system.

Betty Savage holds her son Tyron Bender, 7, at their home in West Pensacola. Tyrone was exposed to lead paint when he was younger and has had physical and psychological problems ever since.

Tyron, 7, should be in the second grade. Instead, he struggles in special education classes at Yniestra Elementary School. He reads at a first-grade level. Solving even the simplest mathematical problem is a challenge.

He can`t focus on a single task for long. He frequently disrupts class by refusing to sit down. On more than one occasion, school officials have asked his mother, Betty Savage, to take him home until he calms down, she said.

Tyron has suffered hearing loss, a result of lead interfering with the development of his auditory nerves, which are among the most sensitive. The hearing loss, in turn, impaired Tyron`s ability to talk. Sometimes his words are little more than long sentences of gibberish. Most times he`s quiet, sucking his right index finger.

He`s aware that he`s different, his mother said. Though tall, athletic and handsome, he has few friends. He`s easily frustrated. When his older brother and sister refuse to throw him a football, for instance, or push him around the back yard in a plastic car, he throws a tantrum. Other times, such as when his mother tries to explain a math problem he can`t grasp, he retreats into a shell.

"He just shuts down," said Savage, 36. "He gives up."

Tyron is one of more than 500 children who have been diagnosed with lead poisoning since 1993 in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

He was exposed to lead-based paint in an aging apartment complex. The most common cause of lead poisoning nationwide is from lead paints used predominantly in the 1960s and earlier.

The Escambia County Health Department is set to embark on a study to determine how many houses are contaminated with lead.

Local health experts suspect that many of the nearly 130,000 houses built before 1978 in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are contaminated.

County health officials are aiming toward legislation requiring lead tests in older houses at the time they are sold. Such a move may one day prevent families with young children from moving into a lead-contaminated house.

But these efforts are too late to help Tyron.

Savage had no idea her son had been exposed to lead in her Brownsville area apartment west of Pensacola.

During a routine checkup at the Health Department clinic in late 1996, when Tyron was only 1, doctors discovered elevated levels of lead in his blood.

When Savage looked around her apartment, she realized there was peeling paint. Even if Tyron didn`t eat the paint chips, he likely touched them and then put his fingers in his mouth. Health officials advised her to move. But Savage, a single mom, couldn`t afford to leave at the time.

She talked to her landlord about removing the lead paint.

"He told us, `You can just leave,` she said. "It got kind of nasty."

It took Savage months before she did move.

In the meantime, the Health Department continued to draw blood samples from Tyron every three months.

The results were disturbing.

As late as March 1997, Tyron`s blood lead levels were nearly three times the concentration beyond which severe health problems are known to occur.

His blood lead levels remained well above safe concentrations until at least 1999, according to medical records Savage provided.

"I just tried to keep him away from the lead paint as best I could," she said.

Savage and her three children now live in a green, wood-frame duplex on Jackson Street.

But Tyron is paying the price for those years of lead exposure.

The problems began to show up when he was 5. He became hyperactive, his mother said, and couldn`t interact with children in his kindergarten class.

"He was constantly doing something," said Savage, who refers to Tyron as "T."

Those problems remain today.

On a recent sunny morning, Tyron played with his sister, LaShara, 10, and brother, Gregory, 11, in the back yard of their duplex.

Tyron was clearly the focus of Savage`s attention as he did cartwheels in the front yard while a steady flow of traffic whizzed by on Jackson Street.

"I have to watch him when he goes to the bus stop," she said. "He`ll just run across the street without looking."

Tyron started pushing one of the neighborhood children down the driveway in a plastic car, moving swiftly toward the street.

"T," Savage yelled. "I told you not to push her like that. You push too hard."

She turned to a visitor, exasperated. "He doesn`t watch what he does."

She does what she can to prepare her son for the future. So do officials at Yniestra Elementary School.

During the summer, the school gives her math books and lesson plans in an attempt to elevate Tyron up to the intellectual level of his peers.

"I`m trying to get him to learn more," she said.

Savage said she thinks she has seen improvement in Tyron.

But the next minute she stared sadly at the ground.

"I do worry about his future," she said. "I really do."

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