A Firsthand Account of the Ravages of Lead Poisoning

Tom Irwin | @TomIrwinNH

As part of Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, we’re revisiting this blog from Joan Valk, a Family Support Specialist at Child Family Services in New Hampshire. When a bill designed to better protect New Hampshire kids from the continuing threat of lead poisoning was proposed before the state legislature, Joan testified about her firsthand observations of the impacts on the families and children she visits. Her testimony made such a compelling case for addressing the problem of childhood lead poisoning, we wanted to share it here in full:

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified,” and “lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body.” In my 14 years as a home visitor in Merrimack County, most often in and around the Franklin area, I have seen many children who suffer the effects of lead poisoning. These children all have learning delays, speech delays, and behavioral issues. They need Early Supports and Services before they get to public school and Individualized Education Plans once they get into school.

Services that they typically get are special education hours, including help with math and reading, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral therapy. Many require a one-on-one aide to help them through the school day. Parents have to try to handle all of the appointments with medical providers, specialists, school meetings, and counselors, and somehow manage their children’s symptoms at home, dealing with behaviors that even experienced parents are at a loss for how to handle. These parents try to cope with impulsive behaviors including biting, hitting, kicking, head banging, and throwing toys and furniture. Once the children are three years old, there is a waiting list for in-home services through area agencies, so parents are left to deal with these behaviors with little or no support.

Although lead poisoning can occur in any socio-economic status, most of the families I serve are very low income, and do not have many options or alternatives to where they are living. Parents then have to deal with the guilt that, in trying to provide a home for their children, they have inadvertently contributed to their condition. I have gone into homes with cracked and peeling paint on walls, ceilings, and window sills, with parents who don’t even own a vacuum, who know that there is lead in their house, but feel like they can’t do anything about it. Or they don’t understand how harmful it can be to their children. Some parents mistakenly think that, because they were raised in a home and they are fine, that their children will be fine, too.

Parents are afraid to ask their landlord to do anything for fear that they will be kicked out of their apartments and be homeless. They are afraid to call the code enforcer. Many landlords refuse to address the issues, or they address them by replacing windows or painting over the lead paint, but they don’t do it correctly and the situation becomes even more harmful for the child. Some of my clients believe that the landlord has said there is no lead paint in the home when the landlord has actually said that he/she has no knowledge of lead paint in the housing – so the parents think their children are safe when they may not be. And even if they move out, another family with children moves in and the cycle is repeated over and over again, with the children of our New Hampshire families paying the price, and New Hampshire and our schools footing the bill.

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