Published on April 13th, 2015 | by Richard Black0
How I Shot My Family Full o’ Lead
So I’m home alone for the first time in about a week and a half. It’s good to be in my new house but the emotion is bittersweet. My wife Laura and daughter Darcy are spending the night with friends as they have been for the past week and a half and I miss them. Our separation, however, is necessary and one of my own making.
As some of you may know I’ve been in the process of rehabbing a home. I haven’t been doing all the work mind you. I’m not what one would call “handy”. A team of monkeys with ball peen hammers have a better chance of successfully gutting a home and putting up drywall than yours truly and being aware of my lack of inclination towards anything more complicated than licking an envelope (although I have cut my tongue quite often during the task) my wife and I, hired a contractor.
For the most part we’ve been satisfied with his work. The quality of my contributions however have been a bit more suspect. Being aware of my limitations, but still conscious of cost, I’ve relegated my role to painting. How much damage after all can one man render with a paint brush? The answer is not much as long as that person does not put the paint brush in her or, in my case, his mouth. Unfortunately there is a bit more to painting than simply dipping a brush into a pail of paint and slathering it on a wall. There’s preparation, filling little holes and gaps in the trim with caulk or wood filler and then finishing it off with a few passes of lightweight sandpaper.
Our house was originally built in 1908 and contains much of the hazards one would expect. There has been asbestos, an old Federal Pacific circuit board somewhat affectionately known in the industry as Old Sparky, aluminum wiring that heats and cools and expands and contracts to leave an alarming gap through which electricity arcs through creating an inevitable fire hazard, toxic galvanized pipes and, last but certainly not least, lead paint.
I’ve always prided myself in not being a complete idiot (please note the use of the modifier “complete”) and before I began sanding or painting anything I tested two layers of paint on the window trim in three different places and in two different rooms. Each test registered a negative for lead and I spent the next month with a a rotary sander cheerfully and meticulously wearing away at the floorboards and trim of my new home as I unwittingly flooded my entire house with lead dust. Of course I wouldn’t discover that rather important bit of information until I’d moved my wife and four year old daughter into the home.
I was in a hurry you see. As with most rehabbing projects the work on our house has been fraught with delays. Work initially began in October and we were originally scheduled to move in by the beginning of January. The date was pushed back to the middle of February, then the end of February and finally the middle of March when we stuck to our guns and moved in while construction was still ongoing. I began to unpack and paint over the course of the next two weeks and then one day, one fateful day, a man hired to clean our gutters noticed that the entire outside of our home was covered in lead based paint.
In short order my Laura realized that the markings on the trim of the outside of our home, the striations indicating lead based paint, bore a striking resemblance to the markings on the trim on the inside of our home. Laura then ran, literally ran, out of the house to her car and drove at warp speed to a hardware store down the street to procure another lead test. I scraped more paint off the trim of the window in my daughter’s room, this time down to the wood and was blessed with a horrifying purple stain that indicated the presence of lead based paint.
We evacuated immediately. We were stunned to be honest and each of us went into crisis mode. Laura began imagining the ramifications for our daughter, the possible level of lead in her blood and consequences thereof. I focused on the logistics of getting my family out of the home as quickly as possible. In writing about our departure it reads as being much more calm and collected, much less unfucked up than it really was. In reality, we ransacked our home for the clothing and items we could get together as quickly as possible before we left and questioning their potential for contamination. Our shoes? What about the clothes in the closet? Was the quilt that my mother made contaminated? My daughter’s favorite blanket? The answer of course was potentially everything.
There is no good way to deal with this situation. That’s not true actually. Not exactly. To be more precise there is no perfect way to deal with this situation and there are many, many, ways to fuck it up. In crisis I react and once the crisis is over I fall apart and sleep for twenty hours, interlude for a forty five minute yelling match with my wife about how we would not put the house on the market because we weren’t in a place to make any decision regarding the sale of our home before I fell asleep, again, for another twenty hours.
I was at a laundromat a few days later when I finally had a few hours to myself to acclimate to the enormity of what I had done. There really is nothing like an semi-empty laundromat for coming to an epiphany (Why are there so many sixty plus year old people here? Once you’re past the age of 40 and you’re using a laundromat as the primary means to clean your clothes haven’t you failed as a person? Most apartment buildings have these facilities right?). I’d just hauled five or six giant trash bags full of laundry and stuffed them into the machines when I realized that I had unwittingly poisoned my daughter and given my wife the means to loathe and and perhaps even leave me. I understood that The Buck stopped with me, that I did the work, that I caused the situation and that I owned it and caused my soon to be five year old daughter’s blood to be poisoned with lead.
Upon leaving our home the very first action Laura and I took was to drive as quickly as possible to our daughter’s pediatrician. Darcy was given a blood test and, after a fretful period of time that couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, learned that she had registered 12.4 micrograms per deciliter of blood, more than four times the acceptable level in children aged six and under. I was devastated and Laura was crushed. To put that measure in some perspective a reading of three or under is generally believed to be a level consistent with the usual amount of lead most of us incorporate into our bodies simply by taking part in the world in which we live. A level of five to ten warrants concern and monitoring. Anything over ten micrograms per deciliter requires immediate and decisive action particularly when it involves a child under the age of six.
Both Laura and I contacted lead remediation companies as quickly as possible and discovered, in short order, that there is a lot of money to be made from fear. After all how much would you pay to keep your family safe? $5,000, $20,000? Half a million. The answer of course is “Yes” to all of the above but that’s la la land finance. In real life there’s only so much money to spend and no one I know budgets for lead contamination. I was told that it would cost $30,000 to wipe down the contents of my home and that the cost of abating the lead was beyond calculation. Fortunately, through a family friend whom is an expert in the field, we were able to find a company I believe that I, and my wife, can trust. Ultimately, however, I still do not know the cost of my well intentioned but hazardous folly in terms of dollars or my daughter’s health.
I console myself with facts; that my daughter was, most likely, only contaminated after two weeks of exposure instead of years. I console myself with the thought that that lead has been with us for quite a while. The Romans used it as a glaze in their pottery to give their drink a sweeter taste but they’re no longer around so that might not be the best example. For years lead was added to gasoline for years to smooth out those irritating knocks in the internal combustion engine. It has been added to plaster, stain, and really just about anything else that involves a paintbrush before the 1980’s.
During the 1960’s lead levels in the air were something like forty to fifty times higher than they are now. With the ubiquitous use of lead in paint and as an additive in gasoline acceptable levels in one’s bloodstream were 60 micrograms per deciliter in the 1960’s, then 25 in the 1980’s before falling to the current standard of 10 micrograms per deciliter in the 1990’s.
Lead poisoning, particularly in children Darcy’s age, is scary shit. It floats around in the bloodstream for quite a long time and, while most of it is eventually excreted, a sizable amount can take refuge in one’s bones. As an element lead bears enough of a resemblance to calcium and usurps its position in bones, particularly those of young children, rendering them brittle if the duration and level of exposure is high and long enough.
Heightened levels of lead in the bloodstream have been linked to any one of a number of horrors ranging from neurological deficiencies to myriad physical conditions and even emotional disorders. Darcy’s exposure, my daughter’s exposure, was limited to two weeks and while I can’t be certain I believe that she is in the clear. Aside from the trauma of multiple blood draws over the next few years my daughter should remain unscathed. I will, however, never know for certain and always, always, question whether the shortcomings I perceive in her capabilities are simply her own or due to my negligence.