Poisoned in childhood Campaign: A Baltimore father's crusade to end lead poisoning in children began after a son,now 34, was severely retarded three decades ago because of the effects of lead paint.

October 30, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Wayne Garrison ate lead paint particles as a 2-year-old.

He is 34 now. He barks sounds, claps his hands, handles dirt readily and spins like a top.

He also makes his bed, removes the family trash, goes to church with his father and sometimes yells in loud clear words, "May I have some M&M's, please?" He devours M&M's.

Garrison is severely retarded. What happened to him 32 years ago has occurred, in varying degrees of seriousness, to tens of thousands of Maryland children.

Last year alone, 12,000 Maryland children were officially diagnosed with lead poisoning.

What has not befallen Garrison is institutionalization. He lives in West Baltimore with his brother, Brandon, 12, and his father, Warren, who was recently honored by the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning for years of advocacy.

Wayne Garrison spends his days at an activity center for retarded adults. Brandon, an eighth-grader, likes science and sports and plays the clarinet. Their father, a former jazz musician, is an insurance salesman and Pentecostal minister.

"We're a package of three," Warren Garrison has told a succession of employers, church groups, friends and social clubs. Over the years, those words and the family's normal and not-so-normal emergencies have strained the father's relationships and broken some. He's had many jobs.

It's virtually unavoidable, Warren Garrison, 53, said. "I give honor to God. The joy of having these two sons is God's graciousness to me. Many say, 'Why don't you put Wayne away somewhere?' No. This is my responsibility."

The boys' mothers, two women who did not marry Garrison and spent little time living with their sons, see them occasionally.

Warren Garrison said he was on a three-week visit to relatives in North Carolina when young Wayne was poisoned by lead paint '' while staying temporarily at his mother's home in Baltimore.

"His behavior changed quickly," the father said. "He stopped talking and he ran into walls."

A doctor diagnosed his condition as severe lead poisoning soon after.

His grandmother, Geneva Garrison, was the one most responsible for raising him. Known as Boots, she died June 5, 1984. It was the day Brandon was born. It was the day Warren Garrison became a genuine single parent.

His poisoned son's fate turned the father into a campaigner against lead poisoning, and he was honored with two professionals: Dr. J. Julian Chisolm Jr., director of the Kennedy Krieger Institute Lead Poisoning Treatment Program, has researched lead since 1952; Dr. Emanuel Kaplan, former city health commissioner, was a pioneering whistle-blower on lead poisoning 50 years ago.

"It is a horrible reality to those stricken, their families, the community," Warren Garrison said. "Part of the horror is that it is absolutely preventable. Let it be said there are some good landlords who reduce risks in their houses. But many landlords avoid their responsibilities.

"Most of these children live in the inner city. They can't learn. They can't read. They don't walk, talk, sit up until late. They're behind," he said. "They ate just a few granules of lead paint."

It's a warning the part-time preacher has taken to parents and landlords, community groups, Annapolis hearings and meetings of the Governor's Advisory Council on Lead Poisoning Prevention, where he served two terms.

"Mr. Garrison has been an eloquent advocate for parents," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the coalition since 1993.

"A lot of parents of these children get angry. Mr. Garrison's directed his energy to changing policies. His principal focus is his son. He shows the cost to parents. He's a reality as well as a symbol."

The coalition has a staff of six and is considered by many the state's leading source of information about lead poisoning. It explains to 8,000 parents a year laws, danger signs in houses, steps to take and effects.

Effects of heightened lead levels include learning disabilities, hyperactivity and behavior problems. Effects of severe poisoning include mental retardation and reduced motor control.

Those with elevated blood-lead levels may be treated with chelation therapy to curtail brain damage. In chelation therapy, a drug that binds to lead removes it from the body.

Because it's so durable, lead paint was used for decades and remains in hundreds of thousands of homes. The threat lurks in the sticky, sometimes invisible dust from crumbling and peeling paint.

Maryland and federal laws passed in the 1990s are aimed at safely removing deteriorating paint and the dust.

Baltimore was the first U.S. city to pass an anti-lead paint bill, in 1953, but it did little good. "We need enforcement," Norton said.

Maryland's lead paint act, which became effective this year, is aimed at 159,000 rental units built before 1950. In return for limiting landlords' liability, the law requires them to register properties, take steps to reduce risks and notify tenants of possible hazards.

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