Lead’s lingering impact on children who live in old homes
Ledyard — Toddler Mark Nathan Lindner could barely speak for the first three years of his life. He used sign language as his primary form of communication.
This was partially because of lead poisoning, according to his mother, Rebecca Lindner. Losing the ability to speak is one of many side effects of lead exposure.
While living in the Nathan Lester House, a 1793 historic museum owned by the Town of Ledyard where Lindner served as caretaker, Mark Nathan, who is now three years old, had an elevated lead blood level which medical and public health experts say could lead to long-term neurological and physical effects.
The family moved out during the summer of 2022.
Connecticut has a prevalent amount of lead poisoning cases because of its old housing stock, said Marta Kostecki, a social worker for Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Regional Lead Treatment Center. Lead paint was used in housing until it was banned in 1978.
The state’s housing stock is older than the national average, with 73% of houses built prior to 1980, compared to 57% nationally, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Out of the reported communities in Connecticut, New London has the second-highest prevalence for lead poisoning in children under 6 years old, with 12.1% of children in New London having a hazardous level of lead in their blood in 2020.
Most New London County towns have had decreasing reports of lead poisoning in the past three years. However, Norwich’s rates have increased by 4.3%, East Lyme’s increased 0.9%, and New London’s increased 0.75%.
Poisoning occurs when lead is ingested or absorbed into the body, most commonly caused by deteriorating lead paint creating lead dust and water contamination from lead pipes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that a blood lead level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter is higher than most children’s levels and that no level of lead in children’s blood is considered safe.
Lindner provided medical records showing that Mark Nathan’s blood lead levels were elevated. His heel prick lead test presented a lead level of 53 micrograms of lead per deciliter, and his blood lead test presented a lead level of four micrograms per decileter.
Lindner’s eight-year-old son William’s medical records said he presented with a lead level of a little less than three micrograms of lead per deciliter.
Mark Nathan’s elevated blood lead level was caused in subtle ways, according Lindner.
While he was sleeping, Mark Nathan inhaled invisible lead particles. Above his bed, an air conditioning unit rested inside of a window frame. During summer months when the air conditioning was on, its vibrations shook lead particles off the window frame and onto Mark Nathan’s bed.
“I just imagine snowflakes coming down,” Lindner said. “I imagine lead particles falling like snowflakes onto my kids while they’re sleeping.”
After baths and showers, his mother said Mark Nathan wrapped himself in lead dust while drying off with a towel. A bin of towels was located beneath another window with an air conditioning unit. Lead particles fell from the window onto the towels. Since Mark Nathan’s skin was wet, lead dust stuck onto him and absorbed into his skin.
Crawling on the floors, Mark Nathan absorbed lead dust though his fingertips and heels of his feet. The floors in the house had originally been coated in lead paint. Lindner said the floors were so chipped they looked like a “rainbow” of multiple layers of dark blue, tan, and brown paint.
Destructive lead exposure can be hard to pinpoint in older and under-maintained housing with lead, like the house Mark Nathan grew up in. Once lead paint begins chipping it becomes a hazard, but nearly-invisible lead dust can be just as dangerous.
Subtle to intense effects of lead poisoning
Walking through the Nathan Lester Home this past summer, one could see paint chipping along the exterior and in some rooms indoors. White sheets of paint flaked from the ceiling like pastry crust, threatening to fall to the floor.
Mark Nathan picked up a two-by-four plank of wood and playfully hit it against the siding of the house. Each of Mark Nathan’s hits sent paint chips flying off the siding and into the dirt. Lindner pointed out areas where paint separated to form a pattern she described as “alligator skin.”
Kostecki said lead poisoning can have side effects as subtle as headaches and irritation — or as intense as loss of speech, seizures and death. Children Kostecki works with sometimes have lower IQs, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems due to lead poisoning.
The largest impact Lindner noticed was loss of verbal skills. She said when Mark Nathan lived in the Nathan Lester House, he knew around 15 words, which was below average for his age range. In the first six weeks after they moved out of the home, she said Mark Nathan was suddenly forming complete sentences, identifying colors, and counting up to nine.
All of Lindner’s sons have been diagnosed with autism. It is difficult to know whether their neurological symptoms come from autism or lead poisoning, since both conditions have overlapping side effects.
Language development, verbal expression, and reading abilities can be impacted by both autism and lead poisoning, Kostecki said. She said both autism and lead poisoning impact the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which controls emotional regulation, focus, and impulse control.
Lindner said it has been difficult to find other families who have struggled with lead poisoning because many families are “tight-lipped” about the issue.
“I think there is such a stigma attached to it,” Lindner said. “People think they poisoned their kids, and they feel guilty about it.”
As a solution to lead exposure, households can have their houses “remediated” or “abated.” Remediation includes repainting and cleaning, while abatement removes any form of lead from the home.
Jesse Good, a New London resident, had his home treated for free through a lead abatement program run by the city. Good said there was lead paint throughout his home and an out-of-use lead pipe in his basement. With two children, Good decided to sign up for the lead abatement program to minimize their risk of lead poisoning.
New London’s Lead Hazard Reduction Program provides lead services to applicants who might not be able to afford to eliminate lead hazards with their own finances. The program also focuses on education surrounding cleaning to reduce hazards of lead.
Judi Cox, the city’s housing and community outreach coordinator, tells families that the most important way to prevent lead poisoning is thoroughly cleaning the house. This includes mopping and using wet wipes.
“If one child is poisoned, it’s too many,” Cox said. “It’s completely preventable.”
The Town of Ledyard hired a contractor for painting and cleaning the Nathan Lester House after the Lindner family was exposed to lead.
Lindner claims the contracting work left the house “worse than it started,” and the property then failed a second assessment by Ledge Light Health District.
After the failed reassessment, Lindner wanted a lead paint-licensed contractor to repaint every wall of the living quarters of the property. She said the Town of Ledyard only instructed the contractor to repaint areas they knew Ledge Light Health District would test.
Ledyard’s mayor, Fred Allyn, did not “recall that being completely accurate,” and said the town did not know beforehand which areas of the house Ledge Light Health District would test.
Lindner, who does not have lead paint certification, said she was hired by the town to repaint the living quarters of the Nathan Lester House herself. She said the town paid her $2,000 for the work. Allyn confirmed the payment and provided receipt of payment to The Day.
Contracting, repainting, and any “disturbance” to existing lead paint by someone without lead certification is the leading cause of lead re-exposure in children, according to Kostecki.
Lead-safe contracting practices are very specific, and if houses are altered in a non-safe way, there is a hazard of more lead dust spreading.
Legal and financial responsibility of homeowner
However, it is sometimes difficult for renters to convince property owners to address the lead issues in their housing, according to Cox. The process of improving lead conditions in a home often begins with a lead assessment done by a local health department. If the assessment finds a lead hazard, the property owner takes on a large legal and financial responsibility.
The number of children who are considered lead-poisoned is about to increase due to Connecticut’s recent lowering of the lead-poisoning threshold, Cox said. In past years, a child with a lead blood level of 5 miligrams per deciliter was considered lead-poisoned, and the number dropped to 3.5 this year. With this lowered threshold, there will be more demand for house assessments and lead abatements, which leads to a larger responsibility for homeowners.
Even after a house is assessed as a hazard, there can be a long waiting period to make the house safe again. Kostecki said that from her research, some households wait up to 12 years to have their house abated, and the average waiting time for an abatement in Connecticut is a year and 10 months. During these waiting periods, Kostecki said lead levels can “skyrocket” if families are not educated on how to live safety in a lead environment.
Kostecki said this waiting time might increase more with the lowered lead-poisoning threshold, because there will be more demand for inspectors and resources.
Kostecki and Cox tell families that cleaning is one of the most vital parts of living safely in a lead environment. Using wet mops and wet wipes to remove lead lust is helpful. Vacuuming can make lead exposure worse, because most vacuum filters are not small enough to catch lead dust, and vacuuming can actually spread dust more.
Kostecki said another way to prevent lead poisoning in children is to be aware of where children sleep, play, and eat. She said children should not sleep near radiators that are coated in lead paint, because the paint can blow on the childrens’ beds. She said that often, children lean their bikes on the exterior of the house, and if the exterior of the house is painted with lead, lead particles can fall onto the handlebars, which children will hold with their hands.
Lead hazards remain
Lindner said areas of the Nathan Lester House still have lead hazards. Walking through the house, Lindner swiped her fingers across the windowsill and held them up to the light to show they were covered in dust, which Lindner said was from the lead paint.
The family moved out over the summer after being evicted by the town, but didn’t have a residence they could move to. They camped during the summer and are now staying in a hotel while looking for housing.
Lindner said the process of cleaning items for lead was stressful for her children, especially because of their autism. The children threw away all of their stuffed animals, since a bin of stuffed animals was located under another shaking air conditioning unit downstairs. Lindner threw away mattresses, couches, and bedding. During remediation, the family had to stay in the Ramada Hotel in Ledyard for seven weeks, paying $700 a week. Lindner said the town paid for the final two weeks in the hotel.
Since leaving the Nathan Lester House, Lindner said her children are experiencing less lead poisoning symptoms.
Lindner said it can be difficult to “think in the present” and limit her worries about long-term effects her children might experience going forward. She said that for now, she is just excited to hear Mark Nathan counting up to nine.
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