During a routine visit to the doctor several years ago, María Vasquez was given the alarming news that her youngest son, Ulises, had lead in his blood, and one of the first questions the concerned mother asked the pediatrician was about the possible source of the lead.
Ulises’ elevated lead tests mirrored those of Vasquez’s eldest son, Benjamin, who had tested positive for lead a few years earlier while living in the same home where Vasquez, her husband and two young boys rented a room for three years.
Of all the possible sources that might be poisoning her children, Vasquez never imagined that the culprit might be in her own backyard.
“The doctor said sometimes houses are old, or children eat old paint chips, or when people cook in ceramic pots or the kids eat candy with lead, they get lead in their blood,” Vasquez told ThinkProgress in Spanish.
But this didn’t seem right to Vasquez, a stay-at-home mom and Mexican native who said her children hardly eat candy. In fact, she said she avoids Mexican candy and doesn’t cook in Mexican ceramic pots because she was aware of the potential dangers of lead in both.
However, Ulises, now 5, loved to play outdoors with his 8-year-old brother, and the two could spend hours digging in a long strip of dirt in their tiny backyard playing make-believe with his action figures.
Vasquez initially had not allowed Benjamin to play in any dirt.
“Don’t worry so much,” Vasquez’s husband would tell her, reminding her that in Mexico where both of them were raised, children would throw themselves in the mud, play in the dirt, and roll on the ground.
But Vasquez was right to be concerned — the source of the lead in her sons’ blood was likely her own backyard.
A series of soil tests conducted on the family’s former rental property by a ThinkProgress reporter showed lead levels that were as much as ten times higher than what the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) considers dangerous for children.
That home, which the Vasquez family left more than two years ago, is in Santa Ana, Ca. where the number of children tested with dangerous levels of lead in their blood exceeds the state average by 64 percent.
California, like other states, follows the benchmarks set in 2000 by the U.S. EPA’s lead soil guidelines: 400 ppm for bare soil in children’s play areas, and 1,200 in the remainder of the yard.
In contrast, the EPA’s level for wildlife mammals is just 56 ppm.
That year, the EPA acknowledged that lead poisoning is “the number one environmental health threat American children face.”
After learning of ThinkProgress’ soil test results, Leticia called the office of her children’s pediatrician, and the clinic staff told her, based on Ricardo and Tania’s previous blood lead tests, that the children didn’t have any lead in their blood. And despite Leticia’s requests to see copies of the results to confirm the levels, the clinic did not provide her with the tests.
But Leticia was concerned: Ricardo had struggled to read and write starting in first grade. By the third grade, he was behind two grade levels in reading and math, struggled to finish his homework, and was almost held back twice over a period of two years. Leticia said she constantly received notes from Ricardo’s teacher because he couldn’t sit still, focus, or pay attention in class.
After the school assessed Ricardo at Leticia’s request and provided special education services to address his delays, Ricardo began to improve last year. He made progress in writing, Leticia said, but he continued to struggle with reading.
“He puts a lot of effort into his studies. He works really hard, but he can’t do the work,” said Leticia.
“The major source of exposure to most children is from the soil environment because the accumulation of lead has been so enormous, and it’s a reservoir of very large amounts of lead,” said Howard Mielke of Tulane University’s School of Medicine, one of the nation’s top experts on lead soil contamination.
Researchers have found elevated blood lead levels can lead to increased aggression, lack of impulse control, hyperactivity, inability to focus, inattention, and delinquent behaviors. And as more scientific evidence emerges on the neurotoxic effects of lead on the developing brain, experts have emphasized that prevention is the key to eliminating the threat of lead exposure.
“We’re talking about children and we’re talking about the future of society,” Mielke said. “You really have to err on the side of caution when you’re dealing with an issue that so severely affects children, and there’s no way around that.”
Children, in essence, are being used as biological indicators of lead-contaminated housing because society has not been willing to invest in efforts to remove the lead from children’s environments, said Bruce Lanphear, an epidemiologist and professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
Lanphear’s research has focused on fetal and early childhood exposure to lead and other environmental neurotoxins. He has found that children with low to moderate blood lead levels experience the most IQ point loss.
“To the extent that a child has been chronically exposed over the first two years of their life, and then you remove them…you’ve really failed to protect that child,” said Lanphear.
So even though national statistics showing decreases in childhood blood concentrations are encouraging, experts like the University of Cincinnati’s Kim Dietrich said that the reality is in urban communities such as Cincinnati where he’s focused his research, too many children are still being exposed.
“We’re still hospitalizing half a dozen kids every month for lead poisoning,” said Dietrich, director of epidemiology and biostatistics at the university’s College of Medicine. “If we were hospitalizing children for some other disease, we’d have a telethon going on here.”
ThinkProgress has produced a series of articles on lead contamination across the nation. Read series at: thinkprogress.org/the-hidden-toxic-threat-in-americas-backyards-aa580bbf61e1.
Yvette Cabrera is an Investigative reporter at Thinkprogress.org.