Lead's lethal passage: One family's anguish

September 10, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

It happens an average of three times a day in Baltimore -- an urgent phone call or knock at the door, a fearful dash to the doctor's office, followed by a lifetime of worry.

"Your baby has been lead-poisoned."

Almost 27 years ago, that baby was Barbie Kress.

Today, she is a walking exhibit of the ravages of lead poisoning. Brain-damaged, unable to keep a job and prone to explosive outbursts, she is the face of an affliction that strikes about 1,200 children every year in what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ranks as one of the most toxic cities in America.

"I'm so tired of going to court," she sighs. "I'm so afraid of going to jail, scared of losing my kids, scared of losing my life. But when I get to beefing with people, it's like something goes off inside me. ... I just lose it."

She is 5-foot-4 and weighs only 105 pounds. But her periodic rages are so intense that she is virtually unstoppable. She has knocked out a cousin's front teeth, carved up her husband's arm with a broken bottle, beaten him with a shower rod, punched out his ex-girlfriend, and, in a neighborhood dispute, pummeled a woman senseless and trashed her house after being blasted in the face with pepper spray.

"It's not that I'm a bad person," says the 31-year-old mother of two, brushing aside a wisp of brown hair and squinting through the smoke from a Marlboro Light. "Or maybe I am. Sometimes I just don't know no more."

This much her doctors do know: Her terrible temper, her long history of run-ins with police and her years of drug abuse had their beginnings in a massive dose of lead paint that nearly killed her when she was 4 years old. The poison left her with a condition her doctors call "bilateral frontal lobe and cortical dysfunction." A scrambled brain. And a very short fuse.

Her symptoms were readily apparent even as a child, and may have been worsened by later addiction to alcohol and mood-altering drugs.

Now her baby is poisoned, too.

Little Casey, the angel-faced redhead that everyone calls "Roo," for her favorite Winnie the Pooh character, has been loaded with lead paint for so long that she can barely speak an intelligible word at the age of 3. Says Barbie: "I'm the only one that can understand her most of the time."

They live in a rental rowhouse near Patterson Park in the 1900 block of E. Lombard St., in the shadow of the bell tower of St. Michael's Church.

Inside their red-brick, three-story home, levels of lead paint dust in places are more than 250 times the state standard. In the room where Casey sleeps, the paint on the window frame near her bed contains 80 times more of the toxin than is allowed by federal regulations.

The paint, tests show, is nearly 40 percent raw lead.

"Most of the readings are off the chart," says Shannon Cavaliere of ARC Environmental Inc., a Baltimore lead-testing company that surveyed the house under a contract with The Sun. "Unfortunately, it's not a lot different than what we see in older rental neighborhoods all over the city. With a few exceptions, it's fairly typical."

But the exceptions in this case are telling. In a city where hundreds of kids are exposed to dangerous levels of lead paint every year -- usually through the indifference of scofflaw landlords who control Baltimore's three worst slum enclaves -- Barbie Kress and her children live in a neighborhood far outside any recognized hot zone. On a block where no child has ever been reported poisoned before. In a house owned by a man with no prior history of lead violations, Health Department records show.

Rather, Casey is the victim of a renovation project undertaken with the best of intentions by her father, a self-taught carpenter who knew little about the hazards of lead poisoning when he gutted the third floor of his landlord's house and sent plumes of toxic dust billowing through the halls.

Theirs is a cautionary tale about an unseen threat that lies in nearly every home in Baltimore.

For little Casey, who has been carrying poisonous levels of lead in her bloodstream for three years, it may already be too late. Born to a mother whose brain was damaged by lead paint, she now faces a similar fate. Barring a miracle, Casey will likely struggle for the rest of her life.

Already, according to U.S. government estimates, she is five times more likely to fall behind in school, seven times more likely to drop out. A recent university study suggests that Casey may well spend some time in jail.

For the sake of other children like her, Casey's parents desperately want her story to be told.

Barbie Kress herself fits into what nationally known lead researcher Dr. Herbert L. Needleman calls "a classic profile" for victims of high-level lead poisoning. Abysmal school performance. Trouble adapting to stress. Drug addiction. Violence.

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