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Jul 21, 2018

Poisoned, ignored and evicted: The perils of living with lead (rebroadcast)

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Old paint, old pipes and demolition dust often are sources of toxic lead. It’s a poison known to cause neurological damage in children. For adults, new science shows lead exposure increases the risk of heart disease. Reveal investigates the lurking threat from the dust of urban demolitions to the wilds of Wyoming. This episode was originally broadcast March 31, 2018.

In Detroit, dust is a particular concern. Because of the population drop, the city is tearing down tens of thousands of empty homes. Contractors are supposed to follow strict protocols on  demolitions, but when those rules are not enforced, lead dust can drift around the neighborhood, poisoning children in unsuspecting families. Reporter Eilís O’Neill explores the impact.

Next, we go to the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, California, where the rate of kids with high lead levels in their blood was greater than in Flint, Michigan, during the height of the water crisis there. Reporters Angela Johnston and Marissa Ortega-Welch of KALW in San Francisco explain how high housing costs and lead exposure are connected and introduce us to public health nurse Diep Tran, who says lead poisoning puts enormous stress on families.

I’ve seen parents go into shock,” Tran says. “Most of them are anxious. Some feel guilty and go into denial, which is not good for the child, because parents in denial don’t want to work with us. How can the child recover if we don’t help the family?”

She says her only option sometimes is to advise families to move to a homeless shelter to escape exposure to lead.

Paul Flory could not escape. He grew up in Idaho’s Silver Valley, a longtime mining area that’s now a lead-laced Superfund site. Host Al Letson talks with him about going to school next door to a smelter and the struggles he’s had after his childhood lead poisoning was recorded – and then largely ignored.

Finally, we discover how tiny fragments of lead bullets hurt hunters’ unintended targets: eagles, condors and other scavenging wildlife. We trace lead dust from game guts to eagle brains in Wyoming.

DIG DEEPER

  • Read: Oakland and other cities around California won a $600 million lawsuit against three paint companies to help their lead cleanup programs. But the companies want voters to reverse that court decision and have taxpayers cover the bill.
  • Read: Lead bullet dust hurts people, too – such as adults who frequent shooting ranges.
  • Listen: ‘Persistent Poison: Living with lead poisoning’

Credits

Eilís O'Neill, Angela Johnston, Marissa Ortega-Welch, Michael I Schiller, Emily Harris, Laura Starecheski, Michael Montgomery, Deb George and Kevin Sullivan

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're heading to Detroit. We're on Chelsea Avenue in the northeast part of the city. Some of the houses here have neatly trimmed lawns and lacy curtains in the windows. Others have chicken wire fences and rusted out cars in the driveways. Then there are the abandoned homes with the siding ripped off and windows just gaping holes. Detroit used to be home to nearly two million people. Then came the collapse of the auto industry. Between that and white flight, more than half of those people left. Today, fewer than 700000 live in the city of Detroit. That means there are a lot of vacant homes.
Paul Sherman: It's like a war zone. Rows and rows of abandoned houses.
Al Letson: Paul Sherman's a wrecker. His job is to use an excavator to demolish houses. He works for one of the 20 companies that the city hires to demolish abandoned homes. The city's plan is to knock down 40000 houses in nine years. That's a dozen houses every single day. Paul's been in this business for 28 years. His dad was a wrecker before him.
Paul Sherman: When I was a little boy, my dad would bring us to work. I mean back when he was doing it, they were wrecking houses but not on the mass that we do it now. You'd go down this street. We'd wreck this house, but people would be living all through here.
Al Letson: Not now. Now, there are streets with only one or two houses left standing. When we visit, Paul's getting ready to take down a vacant house on Chelsea.
Paul Sherman: Kind of weighs heavy on your heart because someone lived here at one time. Kids lived in this house or someone's got to get emotional over that their house is gone.
Al Letson: Paul bites a hole in the roof with the claw of his excavator. Then he pulls down the front wall til the house is open like a dollhouse. All the while, a member of his crew is spraying the house with a hose hooked up to a fire hydrant. That is to keep the dust down. Within minutes, Paul's finished and what was once a house is now just a pile of rubble on the ground. But if the demolition isn't done properly, what ends up blowing around in the air?
Lyke Thompson: Kids could get lead poisoned by the distribution of dust from those demolitions or from the soil that is left with lead impregnating it afterwards.
Al Letson: Professor Lyke Thompson at Wayne State University isn't the only one worried about lead poisoning. People across the country have been wondering how lead might be affecting them and their kids ever since news broke of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan in 2016. Home demolitions are a huge concern. The federal government doesn't regulate how contractors should prevent lead from spewing all over the place so it's done differently across the country. Reporter [inaudible 00:03:10] O'Neil picks up the story in Detroit Southwest in a piece she originally brought us back in March.

 

O'Neil: I stop by a little bungalow guarded by a pitbull straining on his chain. The front lawn is neat and tidy, but the street is pocked with empty lots and vacant burned-out houses.

 

Red Smith: You can park over here.

 

O'Neil: This is where Ashley and Red Smith live with their family. They've known each other since they were 13, and they've been together since they were 20.

 

Red Smith: I'm 35 so-

 

Ashley Smith: Yeah, he grew up here.

 

Red Smith: ... I grew up around here. I grew up in this house.

 

O'Neil: The armchair Red is sitting in has batting coming out of the seat. He seems to barely fit in the chair and the Smiths and their four kids seem to barely fit in the living room where they've all crammed in to listen to the interview. A fifth kid is on the way. Red works as a stay-at-home dad.

 

Red Smith: I like being home with my children. I like raising them. I like to make sure that they know that they're loved.

 

Ashley Smith: He's very modest about it, but he does a lot. It's a lot of work.

 

O'Neil: Red says he quit his job so Ashley could focus on her career in the mortgage industry and also go back to school to get her MBA. The family can't quite make ends meet so they get a kind of food stamps for mothers and small children. In April of 2017, Ashley went to renew them and she was told one of the requirements would be a lead test for her two-year-old son, Red Jr or RJ. RJ got the test right away, but the results came later.

 

Ashley Smith: Then we got paperwork in the mail stating it was high.

 

O'Neil: RJ's blood lead level was nine. No amount of lead is safe, but any level over five is considered elevated. Levels above 10 are considered poisoning. Lead in a baby's blood can cause lasting brain damage, learning disabilities, speech delays, hearing loss, a lowered IQ, and increased hyperactivity and aggression. Ashley and Red say RJ's test results came as a shock.

 

Ashley Smith: Finding out about it was like a big surprise honestly because he was normal. He was running around, bubbly, just like he is now.

 

Red Smith: Scares the shit out you. Honestly, excuse my French. We want the best for him.

 

O'Neil: In Detroit, nearly 9% of kids under six have elevated blood lead levels. Nationally, that number is only 3%. Lead leaves no chemical marker. There's no way to tell if the lead in a baby's body came from water or windowsills or dirt. RJ's case was a bit of a puzzle because none of his three older sisters suffered from lead poisoning. His parents have a theory about that.

 

Ashley Smith: This home is over like 100 years old or so, babe, right?

 

Red Smith: Yeah.

 

Ashley Smith: Yeah.

 

Red Smith: It was built in 1914.

 

Ashley Smith: Yeah. It's a pretty old house. He's a boy so we give him free [inaudible 00:05:59]. RJ can you come here?

 

Red Smith: Red, stop.

 

Ashley Smith: Can you come here? Yeah. So we let him play. We try not to restrict him when he wants to get into things. I think he might have went on the paint on the porch and whatnot. He probably got into some of that.

 

O'Neil: There's another way RJ could have gotten exposed to lead when his sisters weren't. The houses on his block that were demolished around the time he was found to be lead poisoned. Studies in cities like St. Louis have shown that living close to a demolition can increase a child's risk of lead poisoning. It all depends on how the demolition is done.

 

Brian Farkas: We sit down with experts and handcrafted a protocol that was right for Detroit.

 

O'Neil: This is Brian Farkas. He's with the Detroit Building Authority. He's in charge of the city's demolition program.

 

Brian Farkas: Where we actually knock a hole in the roof of the house, have a direct nozzle spray in there for about two minutes, soaks the entire attic space down, runs down the side of the inside of the house. Then we soak the entire exterior of the house. Then we open up the mist and then we take the house down. Just from that change alone, I almost see no dust emissions just from the naked eye.

 

O'Neil: Experts say there are even more thorough protocols out there. Kent Murray's a professor at the University of Michigan in Dearborn. He studied the lead dust coming off of demolitions in Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore.

 

Kent Murray: So the city of Baltimore, they're using two to four fire hoses. The results of their demolition have been far, far better.

 

O'Neil: Murray says the houses demolished in Baltimore were closer together than the houses demolished in Chicago and Detroit.

 

Kent Murray: And yet we see far higher concentrations of lead, additional lead to the soil in two adjacent homes than we saw in Baltimore.

 

O'Neil: But Farkas says those methods would be too expensive for Detroit.

 

Brian Farkas: I don't think any city in the country is faced with the unique situation Detroit is right now where you've got a potentially 40000 or 30000 left single-family home sites scattered across the city.

 

O'Neil: RJ's family has lived in Detroit for generations, but newcomers to the city are also affected. The Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood is across the city from where the Smiths live. It's quiet with stately brick houses and a waterfront park just a few blocks away.

 

Robert Swaford: Hello.

 

O'Neil: Hello. How are you?

 

Robert Swaford: How are you? Good. Nice to see you again.

 

O'Neil: Vanessa Riley Bates and Robert [Swaford 00:08:24] bought a house here when they moved to Detroit from Chicago about five years ago.

 

Vanessa Bates: We felt like this would be New York in the 1970s.

 

Robert Swaford: Yeah.

 

Vanessa Bates: You get in when it's still a little rough around the edges, prices are super low, be part of the artist's movement, and then watch it all bloom from there so to speak.

 

O'Neil: Robert's a contractor who does historic renovations of old houses. Vanessa's been a stay-at-home mom ever since their son Forest was born two years ago. Forest is wearing blue shorts and those kid sandals that cover most of the foot and buckle around the ankle. He wants to go outside.

 

Vanessa Bates: Forest, we're eating dinner right now. You're going to stay inside right now.

 

Robert Swaford: Forest, let me get your face wiped off. Okay, bud?

 

O'Neil: Robert and Vanessa are typical proud parents. They talk about how sensitive and sweet Forest is, how many words he knows.

 

Robert Swaford: So when we started out, I mean number one was bear on this list anyway. Ball, bird, Dexter the god, dada, mama. Oh, and he knows all kinds of boats too.

 

O'Neil: They even keep a list of those words on the refrigerator.

 

Vanessa Bates: He can identify a lobster boat.

 

O'Neil: They've been keeping close tabs on Forest's development ever since his one-year checkup at the pediatrician. That's when Forest's blood was first tested for lead.

 

Vanessa Bates: The pediatrician came back and he said "Oh, his levels are high. They're quite high." I said "Well what does high mean?" He said "Well we like to see it under three. Five is cause for concern. 10 is lead poisoning. Your child has 21."

 

O'Neil: Vanessa says she couldn't eat for weeks after that appointment.

 

Vanessa Bates: I have definitely felt sick to my stomach that my baby has poison in his body.

 

O'Neil: An inspector came to the house and found lead under the drip line outside.

 

Robert Swaford: They also found it inside. We had his toys set up in his room. When they did the inspection, they found it inside of the windowsill wells. They found it settling on the books. That's a little strange.

 

Vanessa Bates: What's weird about there being lead dust in these windows is these aren't old windows.

 

Robert Swaford: No, they're replacement windows.

 

O'Neil: In other words, the windows themselves have no lead on them. Robert thinks the lead dust must have come from outside the house.

 

Robert Swaford: These windows, the thing about them is that we had double sashes. In fact, there's a screen on the outside instead of a storm. Anything can come in through the screen and sit in that trough even if the windows are closed. When you open a window, you could potentially just get whatever's outside blown right in.

 

O'Neil: Robert thinks he knows where that lead dust came from. The summer Forest was lead poisoned, his dad witnessed two demolitions just kitty-corner from the family's home. Were you home when that demolition was-

 

Robert Swaford: I watched it, yes. It was absolutely 100% not done lead-safe.

 

O'Neil: Robert's a certified lead-safe contractor.

 

Robert Swaford: They were taking the wood trim and throwing it out the windows.

 

O'Neil: That's a problem because the wood trim of old houses is usually covered with lead paint.

 

Robert Swaford: When they demolished, it was a wrecking ball.

 

Vanessa Bates: Without water.

 

Robert Swaford: Without water. No water used whatsoever.

 

O'Neil: Contractors working for the city aren't supposed to do dry demolitions, but Brian Farkas, the guy in charge of Detroit's ramped up demolition program, will tell you one of the biggest challenges since the beginning has been enforcing the rules the city wrote for its contractors.

 

Brian Farkas: You can write the strongest spec you want sitting downtown, but if you're not enforcing it out in the field, you create a culture where cutting corners is rewarded. If I'm a contractor, why am I going to take extra time and money to set up a hose, spray a house down, and soak it while it's being demolished if I'm seeing a guy over there who is outbidding me not doing it?

 

O'Neil: If a demolition is done without water, lead paint can turn into lead dust that can travel nearly 600 feet reaching about 20 houses from the site of the demolition. When I first spoke to him in 2016, Farkas told me if demolitions were causing lead to turn up in children's blood, he'd look at new ways of demolishing homes or overseeing contractors.

 

Brian Farkas: We are hyper, hyper sensitive about the heath implications of demolition. If we are causing a problem, we want to know about it before anyone else does so we can make adjustments immediately.

 

O'Neil: Here's the thing. Most cases aren't clearcut like Forest's. They're more like RJ's where there are a bunch of ways the child could have been exposed to lead. As with Forest, after RJ was found to be lead poisoned, an inspector came to the Smith's house and looked in every corner for lead.

 

Ashley Smith: They came in and they tested every room, every wall, every piece of jewelry I had, drawers, everything. They tested every toy, the soil, the water.

 

O'Neil: The water was fine, but the soil-

 

Ashley Smith: They just said lead was in there and they fixed it. They put new topsoil down. They covered it with rocks.

 

O'Neil: Most of Detroit's soil has some lead in it thanks to years of heavy industry, but as Kent Murray's study found, Detroit's demolitions add even more lead to the soil. There's no way to know exactly how lead got into the Smith's soil. The inspector found lead inside the house too. The Smiths got a grant from the state to fix a lot of the problems.

 

Red Smith: To have this, to have brand new windows, a new roof. The roof is getting ready to cave in. It was breaking down. It was so much that I wanted to do, but I couldn't do because you have no credit or this, that, and the other.

 

O'Neil: It's kind of heartbreaking to think about. Red had wanted to fix up the house, but he couldn't because he couldn't get a loan. Ashley says she also wishes they could have fixed the house earlier.

 

Ashley Smith: You're like "Oh, I think I messed up."

 

O'Neil: A lot of parents end up blaming themselves. They wonder if they could have done something differently when, in many cases, there isn't anything they could have done. RJ's situation is similar to what's happening to toddlers nationwide especially African-Americans. They're more than twice as likely to be lead poisoned as white kids. In Detroit, public health commissioner Abdul Al-Sayed studied how demolitions were affecting lead poisoning. His research came out in January 2017.

 

Abdul Al-Sayed: We could not rule out the possibility that there was some increased risk of elevated blood lead among children who lived close to a demolition.

 

O'Neil: Specifically, the study found that during warm months when windows are left open, children living within a block or so of a city demolition were 20% more likely to have increased blood lead levels. If there were two or more demolitions, they were 40% more likely. A month after the study came out, a city taskforce made recommendations on how to make the demolition programs safer. They included notifying residents about when demolitions are happening and what their health risks are, but a year later, neighbors still weren't being informed about coming demolitions.

 

Alisha Lee: Literally, I left for work. The house is there. I came back. The house was gone.

 

O'Neil: [Alisha 00:16:05] Lee. Lives in southeast Detroit, not too far from where Forest lives.

 

Alisha Lee: We were not notified that they were going to tear down. Well at least I wasn't. I came back. The house was gone. The debris was not even there. They had moved everything. Now, it's just a hole.

 

O'Neil: Others did receive door hangers with instructions to close doors and windows and keep pets and children inside, but the hangers had no information about lead. The task force also called for better oversight to make sure contractors are following the city's rules. I asked demolition contractor Paul Sherman about that, and he told me nothing had really changed. Are there contractors who have bad reputations?

 

Paul Sherman: Yes. Yes. They know who the bad ones are.

 

O'Neil: But that doesn't mean they get caught. Sherman told me the inspectors miss most of his demolitions because they happen in the span of just a few minutes. He says contractors warn each other about surprise visits from the state's Department of Environmental Quality or DEQ.

 

Paul Sherman: Someone always gets a hint somewhere that the DEQ is out riding around. My brother works for [inaudible 00:17:13]. He'll call me and say "Hey, I'm over here. The DEQ just rode up on me. They're in the neighborhood." I'll kind of look out for each out. No one wants to see anybody get in trouble. I mean that's ... No water's like a $25000 fine.

 

O'Neil: I brought that information back to Stuart Batterman. He's a task force member and a professor of environmental health at the University of Michigan. This demolition contractor told me "We all have friends who work for the other contractors so we know when DEQ is riding. We call each other and say 'Turn your water on.'" I thought that was an interesting-

 

S Batterman: That's discouraging. This is why everyone needs to be inspected.

 

O'Neil: The city task force recommended that officials start monitoring lead in the soil and air near recent demolitions. I wanted to know what they found out so I filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The answer I got back was really troubling. There was no record of

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

O'Neil: The story I got back was really troubling. There was no record of any lead monitoring despite the city's own promises. I tried to talk with Brian [Farcus 00:18:09] about this. He's the guy we heard from earlier who's in charge of Detroit's demolition program. I called and emailed him over several months but he declined to comment.

 

Once lead is found in the blood of kids like RJ, there's only a couple of things doctors can do. Give them medicine to try to remove the lead or use a special diet. That's what they did in RJ's case.

 

Speaker 1: They really stressed that water, water, water, water, water. If you give him juice, put water in the juice. So yeah, they want more diapers, more wet diapers.

 

O'Neil: Milk can also help because the calcium competes with lead for absorption. And fruits and vegetables can help carry lead out of the body.

 

Speaker 1: He likes veggies though. That's the thing about children. If you feed them good while they are this age, they will not know the difference.

 

O'Neil: I spoke with the Smith's back in the summer of 2017. Since then, Ashley got tested for lead to make sure her baby wasn't being exposed. She was in the clear thanks to the remodel. On New Year's Day, 2018, the Smith's fifth child was born. A healthy baby boy they named [Tyrel 00:19:18]. As for RJ, Ashley tells me he's doing well. He talks a lot, he knows all his colors, lots of animals and he's trying to learn his letters. He'll start pre-school in the fall.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to [Alicia O'Neill 00:19:32] for bringing this sad story. The city found out a year and a half ago that its demolitions were connected to elevated levels of lead in kids but only now is the city looking to hire a contractor to investigate why that's happening. In the meantime, Detroit has halted demolitions in neighborhoods with the highest rates of lead poisoning but demolitions are still happening in other parts of the city. We checked with Professor [Bademan 00:19:58] and he says he's not sure how safely those remaining demolitions are being done.

 

So, what happens to those lead poisoned kids when they grow up?

 

Paul: I just feel like we were collateral damage to make money for the industry.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal and I'm Al Letson. Today, we're looking at different ways that lead gets in to people's lives. In our homes, in water, the air and dirt our children play in. Lead affects kids all around the country. KLW reporters, Angela Johnson and Marissa Ortega Welch did a deep investigation this year on lead in the San Francisco Bay Area. Marissa and Angela, welcome.

 

Speaker 2: Thanks.

 

Speaker 3: Thank you.

 

Al Letson: So, tell us what you've learned.

 

Speaker 2: There are these hot spots around the country, certain zip codes, certain neighborhoods, where kids have really high levels of lead. And one of those hot spots is right here in Oakland, California, in the Fruitvale neighborhood. Seven percent of kids in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California, have lead poisoning.

 

Al Letson: What is it about the Fruitvale area that makes all these lead cases pop up?

 

Speaker 3: The majority of homes in Oakland are pre-1978, which is built before lead paint was banned. So there are all these potential sources and that's where kids in Alameda county are getting lead poisoning from, the homes.

 

Speaker 2: Lead is a neurotoxin, it kill brain cells so kids brains under the age of six are still developing. If they are poisoned by lead, that's going to affect their long term brain health.

 

Al Letson: So what does that look like in a kid? Like a child that gets lead poisoning, what are the symptoms?

 

Speaker 2: Lead poisoning symptoms are things like loss of appetite, violent behavior, difficulty paying attention which a lot of kids under the age of six might have, right? So you could be sending your kid off to school every day thinking that they just don't sit still well in class or they're fighting a lot with their siblings, when actually what's going on is they've got lead poisoning.

 

Al Letson: Is it reversible? Like once a child gets lead poisoning, is there any coming back from that?

 

Speaker 3: No, the neurological damage is done. You can remove lead from the blood, you can remove lead from the body but those long term effects will be there for the rest of the child's life.

 

Speaker 2: Lead gets in the bones. It stays in the bones, it stays in the teeth and it will release over time so it's the sort of slow drip toxin, this slow drip killer.

 

Al Letson: So maybe the most famous case of lead poisoning that Americans can think about right now is what's going on in Flint, Michigan, which still doesn't have clean water. How does that compare to what's happening in East Oakland?

 

Speaker 2: Well, we talked earlier about how the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland is this hot pocket of lead poisoning. Seven percent of kids in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland have a high lead level, a level above five micrograms per deciliter of blood. Seven percent. Flint, Michigan? Five percent of those kids had lead poisoning and we had a national public health crisis. That was making the nightly news for days. It's still not solved. We're still probably not talking about it enough but Oakland actually has a higher percentage of kids who are lead poisoned and we're not talking about it.

 

Al Letson: So as part of your reporting, you followed around a nurse who was trying to help kids that had been poisoned by lead in their homes.

 

Diep: [inaudible 00:23:25] Come here, front desk.

 

Al Letson: Her name is Diep Tran.

 

Diep: I come to see him because I saw the hospital, after he was born. Oh, I'm not sick so I can hold him.

 

Speaker 2: Yeah we got to tag along with Dieppe as she visits these families, does her case work. She is dealing with about 30 new cases every year. She's working with about 150 families at one time.

 

Speaker 3: It's a lot. It's a lot and it shows. She's very passionate about her work, she's very animated but it seems like she never stops working. She works on the weekends, she works when she can visit families so that means going to their house after work, going in the morning, calling at lunch hours. She knows all these families, too, even though she's dealing with 150 at a time.

 

Diep: Oh, somebody's growing up fast. He was light before, now he's heavy.

 

Speaker 2: She is part of a department of people who will come out and actually repaint homes and do other support services.

 

Diep: Oh look at this face.

 

Speaker 3: She's super animated. It was actually really hard to record her because she's running around the room, she gets really excited, she slams on the table, she whispers and then she'll yell something really loudly so she was ... You know, she's really, really passionate about this work and she tells us that sometimes she doesn't sleep at night because she's worried about what she's going to do the next morning.

 

Al Letson: So what does her day look like? I mean you guys embedded with her, traveled around the county with her. What exactly does she do?

 

Speaker 2: When a kid in Alameda county tests high for lead poisoning, she is deployed to their house.

 

Diep: I've seen parents go in to shock. Most of them are anxious, some feel guilty and go in to denial which is not good for the child because parents in denial don't want to work with us. They quickly slam the door in our faces and how can the child recover if we don't help the family?

 

Speaker 2: The first thing she's doing is she's helping them determine where the lead is coming from and then the county has some resources to even try to do some lead abatement. But she's also doing things like nutrition counseling. There's certain foods that kids can be eating to help with lead poisoning, to help keep the body from absorbing lead.

 

Speaker 3: And one of the most important things that she's doing is helping these families find new housing because one of the best ways to bring down a child's lead levels is to remove the source of lead and if you can't paint over it or a landlord is unwilling to fix peeling paint, you have to get the child out of the house. One of the shocking things we learned from her is that sometimes she actually has to refer a family and tell them to go to a homeless shelter.

 

Diep: It's my job to make sure that if they want to move for the child to recover from lead poisoning, but they can't afford to, I have to find them housing, lead free housing that's affordable. So that's another part of my job. Other nursing programs have their own social workers. I'm just one. We don't have any so I put them in a homeless shelter because once they're in the shelter, their chance of getting hopefully affordable and lead safe housing jumps up.

 

Speaker 3: They're more likely to get affordable housing when they're in a homeless shelter rather than just looking around the bay area.

 

Diep: After a low income family moves out they probably owners repaint and remodel the apartment or the house and can charge double or triple the price.

 

Al Letson: How do we put an end to this problem of kids being poisoned in their homes? I mean, it seems preventable so besides gentrifying the whole neighborhood, what's the solution?

 

Speaker 3: Well it is preventable and that would just be making sure that when kids move in to a home, there's no lead in the home. There are examples around the country of cities and areas that have tried to remove sources by doing these rental inspection programs where landlords would be responsible before they could rent their apartment to a family, to make sure that the apartment was tested for lead and that the sources were removed. We found this example in Rochester, New York, that really reduced childhood lead poisoning rates by a lot.

 

Speaker 2: They committed to proactively inspecting all rental units in the city and in the ten years that they did that, they brought their childhood lead levels down by 80 percent.

 

Speaker 3: And so Alameda county, the healthy homes department, the lead poisoning prevention program, they've been trying to get Oakland City Council to adopt something similar to that Rochester model for almost a decade and for many different reasons, it keeps getting pushed back but that's what they want to do.

 

Speaker 2: Other countries around the world banned lead paint as early as 1920s. The US got around to it in 1978. Here we are in 2018 and there are still kids who are getting lead poisoned. So it's not a huge number but it's certainly a number of kids in Oakland who are continuing to be poisoned by something that we have known for basically 100 years is something we shouldn't have in our environment.

 

Diep: Now I have to work harder because our plan was for lead poisoning to be gone, eradicated, by 2010. And yet, we're still getting too many cases.

 

Al Letson: Oakland and other cities around California are supposed to get money to help their lead clean up programs after they won a $600 million lawsuit against three paint companies. One company agreed to settle but the other paying companies are appealing to the US Supreme Court. For more on Angela and Marissa's reporting on lead in San Francisco's east bay, listen to their series.

 

Speaker 2: All those radio stories are available on kalw.org.

 

Al Letson: The funkiest public radio station in the system. Thank you ladies for coming in.

 

Speaker 2: Thanks for having us.

 

Speaker 3: Thank you.

 

Al Letson: Diep Tran, the public health nurse we just heard from works to prevent lead poisoning in kids. So what happens to children who are exposed to high levels of lead but grow up with no treatment? Idaho's Silver Valley is one place to look.

 

Paul: You see all the green? None of that was there back when the smelter was going. That was all brown.

 

Al Letson: Miners have been digging silver, zinc and lead out of the mountains there since the late 1800s. In 1917, the Bunker Hill Mining Company opened a lead smelter in the valley to get the valuable metal out of the rocks. Paul grew up in Kellogg in Smelterville, towns on either side of the smelter.

 

Paul: This little blue house here was my mom and step dads house. I lived in between that house and the one in Smelterville.

 

Al Letson: During Paul's childhood, that smelter was going full blast.

 

Paul: Oh, I remember the metal feeling in your teeth from it. I remember not being able to see across the playground because it was so smokey. It was bad.

 

Al Letson: Paul went to Silver King Grade School. It's gone now but back then it was just downhill from the smelter.

 

Paul: It was their waste water, I believe, that ran right behind the school because I remember if a ball went over the fence or anything it was gone, you couldn't go get it. It was in the waste water coming out of the smelter.

 

Al Letson: In 1973, a fire badly damaged what's called the baghouse of the smelter. That's the place with filters to control air pollution. Paul was a toddler then. Do you remember anything about that?

 

Paul: The only thing I remember from that is it ate the paint off our car in front of our house so they gave my dad a check to get a paint job because he had a nice car and he wanted to get it repainted.

 

Al Letson: It ate the paint off of your fathers car. Did people talk about this or was it just like an open secret that no one really said anything?

 

Paul: Me and my friends talked about it behind closed doors. I just feel like we were collateral damage to make money for the industry. That's how I feel about it.

 

Al Letson: This feeling of being collateral damage is so strong for Paul because after that fire the smelter kept running but with sharply reduced pollution controls. Lead exposure shot up dramatically but people didn't know or they put their jobs first. Miners kept mining and kids kept doing what kids do.

 

Paul: My thing was going to the lake and water skiing, that's what I liked to do.

 

Al Letson: What about school itself, did you like going to school?

 

Paul: No, I wasn't ... I hated school. I had all kinds of problems in school, yeah.

 

Al Letson: Tell me about them, what was going on?

 

Paul: I was frustrated all the time. Schoolwork frustrated me. The concentrating, and it was too much for me. As far as organizing anything or planning anything, that's really, really difficult stuff for me to do and it really frustrates me.

 

Al Letson: How about your memory? Is your memory good?

 

Paul: No. Sometimes but no. Dates, times I don't remember a lot of things.

 

Al Letson: In the months after the baghouse fire, lead emissions from the smelter averaged almost 30 times higher than the Clean Air Act allowed. The year Paul turned four, local health officials started testing for lead. 99 percent of the children living within a mile of the smelter had lead levels in their blood considered hazardous, even then. You were tested for lead three times as a kid. Why'd you do it?

 

Paul: Because they asked us to. We did it because they paid us money as kids. If you go get your lead tested, you got $15 or something, that's why we did it.

 

Al Letson: When Paul was nine, 11 and 12 years old, his blood lead levels ran between 20 and 30 micrograms per deciliter. CDC guidelines now say kids with that much lead in their blood need to get checked out by a doctor right away. So, did you get help right away?

 

Paul: I wasn't even told. I didn't even know my lead levels til 2004.

 

Al Letson: Did your parents know?

 

Paul: They said they didn't.

 

Al Letson: Paul got his test results from local health officials when he was 33 years old. How did you feel when you first saw the tests that you took as a kid and saw what those numbers were?

 

Paul: I went to my doctor. He said that they were nothing to be concerned about but I know that me and my friends had lots of problems so when computers came out, I researched it and I learned different.

 

Al Letson: Paul has had many problems that have long been tied to childhood lead exposure. Trouble learning, dropping out of school, hypertension. After Paul quit school, he worked in the mining industry.

 

Paul: I was 17, I worked at the Bunker Hill with my dad. I liked it a lot, I just did different things, hauling muck and stuff underground.

 

Al Letson: His dad experienced another dark side of mining. One of the deadliest US mine fires back in 1972. 91 miners were killed. Paul's dad Ron [Flore 00:34:49] was rescued after spending a week 4000 feet under ground.

 

Ron: I had to figure it out in our own minds, what they were doing to get down to us. We knew they had to come down to get us out.

 

Al Letson: This is Ron, talking to a local news station in 2010.

 

Ron: Really good feeling to get out when we got out.

 

Al Letson: He passed away last year. What was your dad's take on the pollution?

 

Paul: He knew about it. It was something that bothered him because I think he knew the effect it had on me. I think it was something that he really didn't deal with or want to deal with until just before he passed.

 

Al Letson: What was his thoughts on it? I mean, what did he say to you?

 

Paul: He didn't know what to say. It's just a really messed up subject. He didn't know what to say.

 

Al Letson: Before you understood what was going on with the lead poisoning, did you have any suspicions that it was lead poisoning? How did that all play out?

 

Paul: Yeah, well I mean we kind of knew because there were settlements. There were a bunch of settlements and a bunch of people left, I mean-

 

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Paul: There were a bunch of settlements and a bunch of people left. I mean, we knew something was going on.

 

Al Letson: We don't know how many children the lead harmed in the Silver Valley, but a study of nearly 300 adults who grew up there at the same time as Paul found they had significantly more neuropsychiatric symptoms than a control group. The mining company settled one lawsuit brought on behalf of nine children for about $10 million. A class action followed, ending with payments to three dozen more kids. Paul says his family didn't sue because they weren't sure how to go about it at the time.

 

What does justice look like to you?

 

Paul: I would just like to have somebody that knows about lead sit down and talk to me about it. A doctor. That would be the biggest thing for me.

 

Al Letson: Idaho still offers free lead tests to people living in the area. 35 years ago, Kellogg and Smelterville were declared a part of a toxic Superfund site. In 2002, that was expanded to contaminated sites over 1,500 square miles. A lot has been cleaned but families in the Silver Valley are still told not to let their kids play in the dirt.

 

You can try to stop your kids from playing in the dirt, but keeping lead away from wildlife, well, that's tougher. How bullets are spreading lead in the wild, coming up next on Reveal.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Old paint and demolition dust are two big sources of lead that hurt people. But lead is also spread by bullets. President Obama's administration said that's why they tried to phase out lead ammunition on certain Federal lands on their last day in office. But President Trump's interior secretary, Ryan [Zinke 00:38:01] overturned that order his first day on the job.

 

Reveal's Emily Harris went to Wyoming to learn more.

 

Brian B.: And so the magazine goes in here. The chamber-

 

Emily Harris: It's a below freezing December morning in Wyoming's Bridger Teton National Forest.

 

Brian B.: And then this is the safety.

 

Emily Harris: Brian Bedrossian gets ready to shoot a deer. He loads just one bullet into the magazine, even though it can hold four. You're gonna kill this deer with one shot?

 

Brian B.: We're gonna kill this deer with one shot.

 

Emily Harris: We were laughing because the white-tailed deer was already dead before Brian shot it.

 

Brian B.: I guess we'll see if I'm a good shot or not.

 

Emily Harris: A car hit it the day before. Brian got the corpse from the highway cleanup crew. We hauled it out here. We set it up on a log and shot it with a lead bullet, all to understand the impact of lead bullets on wildlife.

 

Brian B.: The entry wound is always small.

 

Emily Harris: Brian is a hunter. He's also a bird biologist. Wait, is that the bullet hole? That big rip under the left ...

 

Brian B.: Yeah.

 

Emily Harris: ... leg?

 

Brian B.: So there's a bullet hole right there. And then, in, out.

 

Emily Harris: The physics of bullets is good to understand here. It's fascinating. When a lead bullet hits a deer or an elk or any game, its shape immediately starts to change.

 

Brian B.: The bullet hits and when it hits, the front of the bullet starts to mushroom.

 

Emily Harris: Does it collapse back, sort of?

 

Brian B.: It either collapses back or kind of peels back. Just depending on the type of bullet you're using. But yeah. So the whole front half of the bullet will essentially, if you pulled it out, it would look like a mushroom.

 

Emily Harris: Studies using x-rays have found that lead fragments can travel through an animal's muscle and guts to more than a foot away from the bullet hole. That's because as a lead bullet releases its energy inside the animal, it can break into fragments as small as dust.

 

Brian B.: So you can see a little bit of the blood came out here.

 

Emily Harris: After shooting an animal, many hunters just take the meat they want with them, leaving piles of potentially lead-tainted guts for eagles and other wildlife to munch on.

 

Brian B.: The smaller the particle, the more dangerous it is because the smaller it is, the easier it is to pass through the digestive system, the acids eat it up quick and it gets fully assimilated into the bird's system.

 

Emily Harris: Our next stop is the Raptor Rehabilitation Center that Brian runs. Just south of Grand Teton National Park.

 

Brian B.: Here, on our left, is the Raptor Center.

 

Emily Harris: The center is in a soaring old gothic-style barn in a broad river valley with snow-capped mountains all around.

 

Brian B.: This is the raptor barn where we house all of our educational birds. This is our rehab barn. This is Megan Warren, our rehabilitation director.

 

Emily Harris: And chief snow shoveler?

 

Brian B.: Chief snow shoveler.

 

Emily Harris: At least today. Hi, Megan.

 

Megan Warren: Hi.

 

Emily Harris: Megan takes us inside to a small lab space. She introduces me to a Eurasian eagle owl named K-2. K-2 spits out a pellet of bone bits and rodent fur from his last meal. As raptors do. In a dark room off this lab space, a golden eagle is resting. He was brought here with lead poisoning a couple of weeks ago.

 

Megan Warren: This bird, in addition to lead, a blood lead level, he also collided with something and had some head and eye trauma.

 

Emily Harris: Lead poisoning can affect a bird's balance so it can't fly right. Lead can also shut down a bird's digestive system.

 

Megan Warren: Okay. We ready?

 

Emily Harris: It's time for treatment. Megan quietly opens the eagle's cage, recorded forest sounds play to keep him calm. Megan and a volunteer cover the eagle's eyes with a little leather hood. They protect his tail with a plastic sleeve.

 

Megan Warren: You hold his head.

 

Emily Harris: The eagle gets antibiotics and anti-inflammatory, a medicine to help his stomach problems. Also, eyedrops. He's just finished his last round of medicine to take out the lead.

 

Megan Warren: You inject it under the skin. The lead binds with that molecule and then it puts it into a form that the body can then pass through the urinary tract.

 

Emily Harris: How does it compare to what a human goes through for lead treatment?

 

Brian B.: It's the same.

 

Megan Warren: Exact same.

 

Emily Harris: Exact same? Like people, more exposure to lead makes birds sicker. How sick also depends on the species.

 

Brian B.: If you're an eagle that 20 years old and every year, you get exposed to lead during the big game hunting season. Then this year, you have just a little bit of exposure, maybe it's enough to tip you over the edge. And condors, on the other extreme, are extremely sensitive to it at lower levels.

 

Emily Harris: To save the condor, California has banned all lead bullets. It's the only state to have gone that far. Other states do have some restrictions on lead ammunition, and as we mentioned, the Trump Administration reversed an Obama decision to fully phase out lead on some Federal lands. Lead bullets are allowed on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It's our next stop.

 

Brian B.: How's it going?

 

Caleb Putt: Good, how are you?

 

Brian B.: Good.

 

Emily Harris: In a parking lot out on the refuge, we find Caleb Putt, a burly drywall guy. He's bagged at least one elk a year around here since he was a teenager. That's a couple decades' worth of elk. He's tracking a herd on the hillside through his binoculars.

 

Caleb Putt: You want to look?

 

Emily Harris: Yeah. Thank you. There are hundreds up there.

 

Caleb Putt: Thousands.

 

Emily Harris: That's thousands? You think?

 

Caleb Putt: I would think there's probably about 2,000.

 

Emily Harris: I ask him whether he uses lead or lead-free ammunition. He's been really friendly, but with this question, he looks hard at me and replies carefully.

 

Caleb Putt: It just depends on what I'm hunting with. You can use lead-free bullets, but they're not as ... the trajectories for some reason isn't quite as good.

 

Emily Harris: Brian jumps into the conversation. And the two of them chat guns and bullet specs in great detail for a couple of minutes. Then, Brian points to the logo on his jacket.

 

Brian B.: I'm a raptor center guy.

 

Emily Harris: And shows his biologist side.

 

Brian B.: I would put a plug in for the eagles to use non-lead.

 

Caleb Putt: Oh, yeah?

 

Brian B.: Yeah.

 

Caleb Putt: What happens to the eagles?

 

Brian B.: About 2/3 of the eagles we test out here on the refuge and in the park have elevated lead and about 1/3 have poisoning levels from the fragmentation in the gut piles.

 

Caleb Putt: Interesting.

 

Emily Harris: Brian tells Caleb about an experiment he ran with hunters in the area.

 

Brian B.: It was 2012, '13. I handed out free ammo.

 

Caleb Putt: Oh, really?

 

Brian B.: And then sold it at cost for about two years. As the number of hunters using non-lead increased, we saw a corresponding decrease of lead in the eagles.

 

Caleb Putt: Man, that's awesome.

 

Brian B.: Yeah. So I was pretty psyched about it.

 

Caleb Putt: I thought you were just about to give me a box of bullets.

 

Emily Harris: Brian's research matches other studies. Caleb is back to feeling friendly. Brian takes the plunge.

 

Brian B.: Let me ask you this. Why don't you use non-lead?

 

Caleb Putt: I guess just because I favor this ... the trajectory and the way this shoots from my weapon.

 

Emily Harris: Hunters' groups often say that non-lead bullets don't shoot as well. Texas and Arizona got hunters to try non-lead and then asked them what they thought. The vast majority said lead-free bullets worked just fine. Brian asks Caleb, "Well, what if?"

 

Brian B.: Let's say you were taking out your neighbor's kid or something. Would you promote him using non-lead in his gun?

 

Caleb Putt: Well, that's a good question. I gotta tell you, I probably fall in that group of people that haven't given it enough consideration.

 

Brian B.: Yeah.

 

Emily Harris: And Brian leaves it there.

 

Caleb Putt: Next time you see me out here, bring me a box of bullets.

 

Emily Harris: Brian wants to get rid of lead bullets but in a way that hunters will accept. He has some hope because duck hunters switched over to lead-free shot after a Federal ban 20 years ago. As we hike up a short steep hill on the elk refuge, I ask Brian what he thought about Caleb.

 

When I first said lead bullets, he totally looked me over like, "Who the hell are you and what do you want?"

 

Brian B.: Yep.

 

Emily Harris: You caught that look too?

 

Brian B.: Oh, absolutely. His whole body position shifted. Which is not uncommon. This is a long-term play, it's gonna take a generational shift. Somebody starts hunting with non-lead, they'll hunt non-lead their whole life.

 

Emily Harris: He didn't know about the eagles, though.

 

Brian B.: No. That's good for me to hear that he didn't know about the eagles and he was open to it. He seemed like a very educated and ethical hunter.

 

Emily Harris: Caleb had suggested Brian work up a simple visual he could show elk hunters. Brian has already figured that out. He uses the elk guts that hunters leave behind.

 

Brian B.: I'm just looking. There's a gut pile. All right, so you see-

 

Emily Harris: On this bright clear winter day on the refuge, piles of elk innards dot the frozen grass of the wide plain.

 

Brian B.: There's a lot of black specks out there.

 

Emily Harris: How high up?

 

Brian B.: On the ground. They're all on the ground.

 

Emily Harris: Oh. Yeah. I seem them, yes.

 

Brian B.: That's a feeding frenzy. There's a bunch of eagles in there, too.

 

Emily Harris: Oh.

 

Brian B.: I can see some white heads.

 

Emily Harris: A half a dozen bald eagles feast on one pile.

 

Brian B.: Let's stop and take a look.

 

Emily Harris: As we approach, they scatter. That is a gut pile.

 

Brian B.: Oh, yeah.

 

Emily Harris: Brian slits the elk's stomach.

 

Brian B.: This can sometimes get a little ripe.

 

Emily Harris: And dumps out stinky half-digested grasses. It's pretty gross. He moves the pile to a sled. We collect a couple more and then load all three gut piles onto his truck. And then, we head back to the raptor center to x-ray them.

 

Elk gut pile number one.

 

Brian B.: Yeah. So this is one of the ones that the birds were feeding on.

 

Emily Harris: We don't see much in the first two x-rays. But the third is different.

 

Brian B.: In this corner.

 

Emily Harris: Bright, white dots grouped together. Brian says this is how metal shows up on x-rays.

 

Brian B.: They're pretty small little particles but I do think it's lead. Not a ton, but still enough to make an eagle sick.

 

Emily Harris: Then we x-ray the deer we know was shot with a lead bullet, because we did it.

 

Brian B.: Let's get the x-ray plate ready on the ground.

 

Emily Harris: Okay. He arranges the deer corpse on the x-ray plate.

 

Brian B.: Okay, let's try that.

 

Emily Harris: Stands over it and pushes go. It takes a couple minutes to process and to get the image on the computer screen. But no time at all to find the bullet wound.

 

I think I can already see what it reflects.

 

Brian B.: You sure can.

 

Emily Harris: A channel. Bright spots are clearly grouped around the bullet hole. Brian zooms in with just his eyeball and a ruler, he finds metal about four inches from the bullet wound. He tries to count the flecks but there are too many.

 

Brian B.: One lead bullet. Hundreds of fragments.

 

Emily Harris: Studies have found enough particles of lead in game meat that several states caution young children and pregnant women about eating game shot with lead. Direct harm to humans isn't clear but Brian knows that what we see on this x-ray is enough to seriously hurt any wildlife that would have scavenged it. Killing eagles is a Federal crime. Punishment is $100,000 fine or a year in jail. But there is no penalty for death by lead bullet dust.

 

Al Letson: Thanks, Emily Harris, for bringing us that story. She's also the lead producer on today's show. Michael Schiller produced our story on lead poisoning in Oakland, California. Laura Sarchesky, Michael Montgomery and Phoebe Petrovic also helped out on today's show, along with editor Deb George. Our production managers Mwende and Ossa. Our sound design team is the Dynamic Duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando "My Man Yo" Aruda. They had help this week from Catherine Raymondo. Our theme music is by Camarado. Lightning support for Reveal is provided by the Reeve and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, the Johnathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hiesing Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 4: From PRX.

 

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