Historic Renovations Create Lead Concern

Curators Are Warned About Dangers Of Removing Old Paint

April 08, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

An Elkridge family's run-in with lead poisoning has prompted the state curatorship program to warn participants in its historic restoration projects to guard against the danger.

"You can't forecast if there's going to be a problem," said Robert Gould, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources. "You certainly disclose what youknow about it, but you can't know everything."

Brothers Stephen and Daniel Wecker and their families didn't knowwhen they moved into the 18th-century Elkridge Furnace Complex that the state requires renovation contractors to be trained in preventinglead poisoning from paint removal. The buildings include two historic houses in which the families live and a former tavern they have renovated and plan to operate as an inn.

"We were not aware of that. I don't think most people are aware of that," said Stephen Wecker's wife, Patti Wecker. A blood test during a routine checkup last Octoberindicated that her year-old daughter had blood-lead levels three times the level currently considered safe for children.

As a result, she had her 4-year old and 6-year-old twins tested. Those tests showed lead levels close to double the safe level. A child living in the other Wecker house also tested at high levels.

The accuracy of the initial tests was questioned by state health authorities. The children were retested, and the lead levels were somewhat lower, albeit above the safe level, Patti Wecker said.

"It was especially surprisingto us because all of the renovation work had been done before we gotin," she said of the house where her family has lived for three years.

Although it is not certain how the children were exposed, it islikely that it was from leftover residue in the house and dust brought in on the clothing of parents working on the inn, said Bert Nixon of the county Health Department's Technical Services Program.

Children under 6 are more susceptible to lead poisoning because they tendto touch dusty surfaces and put their hands in their mouths. They are more vulnerable because high lead levels can affect development.

Although none of the children have shown any ill effects, symptoms could show up years later in the form of learning disabilities or short attention spans, Nixon said. Patti Wecker said she has read volumesof material on lead poisoning since the tests, and doubts the children's exposure will harm them.

"It was very scary for us. I think that in some ways it was unduly scary," she said.

Part of the problem is that until October, the standard for lead poisoning in childrenset by the federal Centers for Disease Control was 2 1/2 times higher than it is now. Under the old standard, if the original tests had been accurate, only the youngest child would have been considered poisoned.

"My doctor said that if it wasn't for the revision of standards, he would have said, 'well, we'll check her again in a year,' " Patti Wecker said.

The Weckers have since scrubbed their homes witha special cleaner and covered dust-prone window sills and wells.

Although the program is now doing more to guard against lead poisoning, Wecker said she doesn't hold the state responsible for it.

"When we started working on the house, it was like, 'This is probably lead paint, so we won't bring the children around here,' " she said. "Ifanything, it was our fault for not exercising the wisdom that we were given."

As a result of the Weckers' experience, the Curatorship Program, which allows people to live on historic state property rent-free in exchange for renovating and maintaining it, has cautioned itsother curators.

The program mailed its 20 curators a half-inch-thick packet of information on lead poisoning and other possible hazards of renovation work, said Ross Kimmel, acting director of the DNR's Enterprise Development Program, which governs the Curatorship Program.

In addition, the curators were invited to a one-day lead-abatement course at the Weckers' project. One of the curators, Leonard Mullar, certified in lead abatement, will provide the instruction in exchange for the cost of materials.

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