Children's lead poisoning puts family's dream on hold Peril forces them out of old home in Taneytown

February 25, 1996|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

In November 1994, Jane and David Williams bought a 26-room Taneytown mansion with dreams of restoring the historic property and raising their children there. But they have put the project on hold since learning last summer that lead paint dust has poisoned their two young sons.

The Williamses say that dealing with the devastating news of their sons' illnesses has been made more difficult by overzealous doctors who forced them to move from their contaminated home and warned that their children might be turned over to state foster care if they refused.

Doctors from Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute and state environmental officials say they sympathize with the family's plight but that they have a legal obligation to see that the children are in a lead-free environment.

"The house is a toxic-waste site," said Dr. Michael Johnston, medical director at Kennedy Krieger, a national leader in research and treatment of childhood lead poisoning. "The kids may look fine, but their brains can be injured in ways that will affect them for their entire lives."

The couple said the doctors have shown no concern for the financial hardships the family faces as a result of having to move. The Williamses spent a month in a Westminster motel and bought a $22,000 mobile home so they can live on their property while they work to rid their house of lead. The family is staying with friends until the trailer is ready for occupancy.

"We put our life savings in this house, and now we're told we can't live here," Mrs. Williams said. "Am I supposed to walk away from a $100,000 investment?"

The doctors and the Williamses have different perceptions of the dilemma, but they agree that there are no easy solutions.

The couple discovered in August that their sons had been poisoned when 4-year-old David's blood was screened for a Head Start pre-kindergarten program. Tests showed that 3-year-old Jeremiah also had been poisoned. Mr. Williams had toxic levels of lead in his blood, and Mrs. Williams had more than normal.

Early blood tests showed that David had 43 micrograms of lead per 1,000 deciliters of blood, and Jerimiah was tested at 47 micrograms, Mrs. Williams said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control's "level of concern" begins at 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, and at 20 micrograms state health officials are required to intervene.

The main source of childhood lead poisoning is peeling paint. Exposure to the toxic metal in children under 6 can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Dr. Johnston said children are most vulnerable at age 3, the age of the Williams' younger son.

A study released this month found that boys with high levels of lead in their bones were more likely to engage in vandalism, shoplifting and other activities associated with juvenile delinquency.

Although most child lead poisoning cases in the state are in Baltimore, the problem often goes undetected in suburban and rural areas because of less frequent lead screenings.

The Williams children were first treated at Kennedy Krieger's lead safe house, where they stayed for 28 days in September. After their release, the boys' lead levels decreased to the high teens, but a few weeks after returning home, the levels had risen into the 30s, Mrs. Williams said.

The children's blood levels fluctuated over the next two months, and by the end of December they had returned to dangerously high levels -- 40 to 50 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

Jeremiah has since been admitted twice to Kennedy Krieger for additional treatment, and his father has completed a course of treatment as an outpatient.

After treating the children for a second time, doctors at the institute refused to release them to their parents until the family moved to a lead-free environment, informing the Williamses that Carroll County child protective service workers might be asked to intervene if the boys returned to the Taneytown home.

Mrs. Williams said the doctors went beyond their authority by refusing to release the boys into her care unless certain conditions were met.

Dr. Johnston said he understands Mrs. Williams' frustration but that the institute's first concern is the health of the children. He is optimistic about the children's chances for recovery if further exposure to lead is avoided.

"We hope that the treatment, which has pulled a lot of lead out of their bodies, has changed the course somewhat," he said.

"I'm optimistic that they've been promptly and well treated and that they will do well."

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