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Mar 31, 2018

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

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. This week, Reveal investigates the lurking threat from the dust of urban demolitions to the wilds of Wyoming.

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, including the city’s lack of warnings or evaluation.

Next, we go to the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, California, where the rate of kids with high lead levels in their blood is 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 - 00:15:04]
(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 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. 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 so 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?
Prof. 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 [inaudible 00:02:44] 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 00:03:12] O'Neil picks up the story in Detroit Southwest.
O'Neil: I stop by a little bungalow guarded by a pit bull 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 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 he 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 stamp 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 and 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. Want the best for him.

 

O'Neil: In Detroit, nearly 9% of kids under six have elevated blood lead levels. Nationally, that number's 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 piece 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. It was built in 1914.

 

Ashley Smith: Yeah. This is a pretty old house. He's a boy so we give him [inaudible 00:05:59]. RJ, can you come here? Can you come here? Yeah, so we let him play and we try not to restrict him when he wants to get into things. I think he might have ... With all 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, and he's in charge of the city's demolition program.

 

Brian Farkas: 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's studied the lead dust coming off of demolitions in Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore.

 

Kent Murray: The city of Baltimore, they're using two to four fire hoses. The results of their demolition had 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 and to adjacent homes than we saw in Baltimore.

 

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

 

Speaker 1: I don't think any city in the country is faced with the unique situation Detroit is right now where you've got 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: Hello.

 

O'Neil: Hello. How are you?

 

Robert: 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.

 

VR Bates: We felt like this would be New York in the 1970s, 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 contactor who does historic renovations of old houses, and Vanessa's been a stay-at-home mom ever since their son, [Forest 00:08:52], was born two years ago. Forest is wearing blue shorts and those kids sandals that cover most of the foot and buckle around the ankle. He wants to go outside.

 

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

 

Robert: 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: Okay. So when we started out, number one was bear on this list anyway. Ball, bird, Dexter -- he's a dog -- dada, mama. Oh, and he knows all kinds of boats too.

 

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

 

VR 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.

 

VR 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.

 

VR Bates: I have definitely felt like 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: They also found it inside because 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.

 

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

 

Robert: No, they're replacement windows.

 

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

 

Robert: These windows, the thing about them is that we've had double sashes, but 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. So when you open the 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 done?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

VR Bates: Without water.

 

Robert: 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 speck 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's 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 health 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 Smiths' 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 like 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 Smiths' soil. The inspector found lead inside the house too, and the Smiths got a grant from the state to fix a lot of the problem.

 

Red Smith: To have all 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 "Could I 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

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:15:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:15:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Eilís O'Neill: In Detroit, Public Health Commissioner Abdul El-Sayed studied how demolitions were affecting lead poisoning. His research came out in January of last year.

 

Abdul El-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.

 

Eilís O'Neill: 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 task force made recommendations on how to make the demolition program safer. They included notifying residents about when demolitions are happening and what their health risks are. We visited neighbors of recent demolitions to find out of they'd been informed ahead of time.

 

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

 

Eilís O'Neill: Alicia Lee lives in Southeast Detroit, not too far from where Forrest lives.

 

Alicia Lee: We were not notified that they were going to tear down, at least I wasn't. I came back, the house was gone. The debris was not even there, they had moved everything. It was just a hole.

 

Eilís O'Neill: I did find one neighbor who'd been notified prior to recent demolition, but she had only received a door hanger advising her to close doors and windows, and to keep pets and children inside. The hanger had no information about lead.

 

The task force also called for better monitoring to make sure contractors are following the city's rules. I asked the demolition contractor Paul Sherman about that. He told me, "It's not happening."

 

Are there contractors who have bad reputations?

 

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

 

Eilís O'Neill: 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's out riding around. My brother works for Adamo, he'll call me and say, "I'm over here, the DEQ just rolled up on me. They're in the neighborhood." We'll look out for each other because no one wants to see anyone get in any trouble. No water's like a $25,000 fine.

 

Eilís O'Neill: I brought that information back to Stewart 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 interesting.

 

Stewart B.: That's discouraging. This is why everyone needs to be inspected.

 

Eilís O'Neill: The task force called for the city to keep on this problem by measuring lead in the soil and air near recent demolitions. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for both kinds of monitoring. The answer came back, "No such records exist." No one's following up on that promise.

 

I called and emailed Brian Farkas over several months to follow up with him after the study came out. 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 in RJ's case, use a special diet.

 

Ashley Smith: They really stress that; water, water, water, water, water. If you give him juice, put water in his juice. They want more diapers, more wet diapers.

 

Eilís O'Neill: Milk can also help because the calcium competes with lead for absorption. Fruits and vegetables can help carry lead out of the body.

 

Ashley Smith: 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.

 

Eilís O'Neill: I interviewed the Smiths last summer. Since then, Ashley got tested for lead to make sure her baby wasn't being exposed. Thanks to the remodel, she was in the clear. On New Years Day the Smith's fifth child was born, a baby boy they named Tariel.

 

Ashley tells me RJ'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 Eilís O'Neil for bringing us that story. Eilís tells us that instead of monitoring the air and soil for lead, Detroit is continuing to give blood lead tests to children. Professor Batterman says those tests can help the city figure out if it's doing enough.

 

Stewart B.: The statistical study here is a way of providing surveillance in the success of the program. I also recommended that this kind of study be repeated each year to see what kind of progress we're making.

 

Al Letson: Critics say that study is backwards. They believe Detroit should be demolishing homes slowly and carefully so there's never any need to test children for lead.

 

Then there's another question, what happens to lead poisoned kids when they grow up?

 

Speaker 2: I just feel like that 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.

 

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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today we're looking at different ways that lead gets into people's lives, in our homes and water, the air and dirt our children play in. Lead affects kids all around the country.

 

Reporters Angela Johnson and Marissa Ortega-Welch have been working on a series for KALW investigating lead in the San Francisco Bay area for about a year. Marissa and Angela, welcome.

 

Speaker 4: Thanks.

 

Speaker 5: Thank you.

 

Al Letson: Tell us what you've learned.

 

Speaker 4: There are these hot spots around the country, certain zip codes, certain neighborhoods where kids have really high levels of lead. One of those hot spots is right here in Oakland, California in the Fruitvale neighborhood. 7% of kids in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California have lead poisoning.

 

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

 

Speaker 5: The majority of homes in Oakland are pre-1978, which is built before lead paint was banned. There are all these potential sources, and that's where kids in Alameda county are getting lead poisoning from, the homes.

 

Speaker 4: Lead is a neurotoxin, it kills brain cells. Kid's 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: What does that look like in a kid? A child that gets lead poisoning, what are the symptoms?

 

Speaker 4: 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. You could be sending your kids 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? Once a child gets lead poisoning, is there any coming back from that?

 

Speaker 5: 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 4: Lead gets in the bones, it stays in the bones, it stays in the teeth. It will release over time. It's this sort of slow drip toxin, this slow drip killer.

 

Al Letson: Maybe the most famous case of lead poisoning that American's 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 5: We talked earlier about how the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland is this hot pocket of lead poisoning. 7% of kids in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland have a high lead level, a level above 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, 7%.

 

Flint, Michigan, 5% of those kids had lead poisoning. 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. Oakland actually has a higher percentage of kids who are lead poisoned, and we're not talking about it.

 

Al Letson: As part of your reporting, you followed around a nurse who was trying to help kids that have been poisoned by lead in their homes. Her name is Diep Tran.

 

Diep Tran: I got to see him because I saw him at the hospital after he was born. I'm not sick so I can hold him.

 

Speaker 5: We got to tag along with Diep 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 4: It's a lot, and it shows. She's very passionate about her work, she's very animated. 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 Tran: Somebody's growing up fast. He was light before, now he's heavy.

 

Speaker 5: She is part of a department of people who will come out and actually repaint homes and do other support services.

 

Diep Tran: Look at this face.

 

Speaker 4: 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.

 

She's really, really passionate about this work. 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: What does her day look like? You guys embedded with her, traveled around the county with her. What exactly does she do?

 

Speaker 5: When a kid in Alameda County tests high for lead poisoning, she's deployed to their house.

 

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

 

Speaker 5: The first thing she's doing is she's helping them determine where the lead is coming from. Then the county has some resources to even try to do some lead abatement. 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 4: One of the most important things that she's doing is helping these families find new housing. One of the best ways to bring down a child's lead levels is to remove the source of lead. 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 Tran: It's my job to make sure that if they want to move in order for the child to recover from lead poisoning but they can't afford to, I have to find them housing, free housing that's affordable.

 

That's another part of my job. We don't have social workers, other nursing programs have their own social workers, at least one. We don't have any, so I put them in the homeless shelter. Once they're in the shelter, their chance of getting hopefully affordable and less safe housing jumps up.

 

Speaker 5: They're more likely to get affordable housing when they're in a homeless shelter rather than just looking around the Bay Area.

 

Diep Tran: After a low income family moves out, the property 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? It seems preventable. Besides gentrifying the whole neighborhood, what's the solution?

 

Speaker 4: It is preventable, and that would just be making sure that when kids move into 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 5: They committed to proactively inspecting all rental units in the city. In the 10 years that they did that, they brought their childhood lead levels down by 80%

 

Speaker 4: 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. For many different reasons, it keeps getting pushed back. That's what they want to do.

 

Speaker 5: Other countries around the world banned lead paint as early as 1920's. The US got around to it in 1978. Here we are in 2018, and there are still kids who are getting lead poisoned. 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 ...

 

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Speaker 6: That we have known for basically 100 years as something we shouldn't have in our environment.

 

D. Tran: 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 cleanup programs, after they won a $600 million lawsuit against three paint companies, but the companies have so far refused to pay. They are instead trying to get a measure on the state ballot, asking voters to reverse that court decision and have taxpayers cover the cleanup bill. For more on Angela and Marissa's reporting on lead in San Francisco's East Bay, listen to their series.

 

Speaker 7: All of 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 7: Thanks for having us.

 

Speaker 8: Thank you.

 

Al Letson: [Dieb 00:31:05] 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 and Smelterville, towns on either side of the smelter.

 

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

 

Al Letson: During Paul's childhood, that's 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 smoky. 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 wastewater, 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 wastewater coming out of the smelter.

 

Al Letson: In 1973, a fire badly damaged what's called back house 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 father's 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 that 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 there.

 

Al Letson: Tell me about them. What was going on?

 

Paul: I just didn't ... I was frustrated all the time. School work frustrated me. The concentrating and it was too much for me. As far as organizing anything or planning anything, I just ... that's really, really difficult stuff for me to do. 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 back house 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% 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 did 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 didn't even ... I wasn't even told. I didn't even know my lead levels until 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 [Flory 00:36:35] was rescued after spending a week 4,000 feet underground.

 

Ron: We tried to figure 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. There was ... 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? Like how did that all play out?

 

Paul: Yeah. I mean, we kinda knew because there were settlements. 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 15,000 square miles. A lot has been cleaned up, but families in the Silver Valley are still told not to let their kids play in the dirt.

 

Doing the show, I learned lead poisoning happens even out in the wild. On Wednesday, we're dropping another podcast where we go elk hunting with a bird biologist who is trying to convince hunters to use non-lead bullets.

 

Speaker 9: I would put a plug in for the eagles to use non-lead.

 

Speaker 10: Oh, yeah?

 

Speaker 9: Yeah.

 

Speaker 10: What happens to the eagles?

 

Speaker 9: About 2/3 of the eagles we test out here on the refuge and in the park have elevated lead and about a 1/3 have poisoning levels from the fragmentation in gut.

 

Speaker 10: Interesting.

 

Al Letson: And what happens to the people who eat the elk meat? Find out Wednesday.

 

Thanks to Emily Harris for bringing us this story from Idaho's Silver Valley. Michael Schiller produced our story on lead poisoning in Oakland. Laura [Starchesky 00:39:49] and Michael Montgomery also helped out on today's show, along with editor Deb George. Remember to check out Revealnews.org for our coverage of the Trump administration and the environment. Our production manager is [Malin de Hinajosa 00:40:02]. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando "My Man Yo" Aruda. Our acting CEO is Christa [Schoffenberg 00:40:12]. Amy Powell is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Commerado 00:40:18] like me. Support for Reveal's is provided by the [Reva 00:40:21] and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the [Heising 00:40:28] 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.

 

Byer Duncan: Byer Duncan here, from Reveal. We've got a bunch of photos on Instagram this week that you won't want to miss. There's an up-close look at Detroit's demolition boom, portraits of families in Oakland who are struggling with lead exposure, and a picture of Paul Flory, near his home in Idaho. That's all on our Instagram account. To follow us there, just open the app and search "revealnews," all one word. Again, that's "revealnews," all one word. Thanks.

 

Andy Donohue: Hi there. I'm Andy Donohue, Reveal's managing editor. We've spent a lot of time over the last year and a half investigating the new era of hate that's sweeping across America. It's one of our newsroom's top priorities. Right now, we're working hard on finishing up a new investigation, which we'll be rolling out soon. But in the meantime, there's a way to keep up with our work. Each week, our reporters put together an email newsletter with their latest findings, interesting trends and recommended reads from other publications. It's called The Hate Report. Signing up for it is easy. Just text "hate" to 63735. We'll add you to the list. Again, text "hate" to 63735.

 

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