The day after Sammy Colon's first birthday, a routine check-up revealed elevated lead levels in his blood. Elizabeth Colon thought her son was alone; in fact, one third of Providence's preschoolers have lead poisoning.
- What are the symptoms?
- HELP for families
It's a myth that lead poisoning usually occurs because a child has eaten paint chips.
More than two million American children-including one out of every three Providence preschoolers-have elevated levels of lead. Lead poisoning can cause headaches, joint pain, fatigue, weight loss, convulsions, paralysis and coma. Each year, Providence spends hundreds of thousands to educate children whose exposure to lead has resulted in developmental delays. And quite possibly none of the city's lead poisoned children has ever mistaken a paint chip for candy.
"Lead poisoning is seasonal," says Hillary Salmons, vice president for program development at Health & Education Leadership for Providence, or HELP. "Inside the home, the cause is friction: when windows go up and down in summer, paint dust goes into the air or gets trapped in the window. Kids get the dust on their fingers and put their fingers in their mouths.
"Outdoors, the problem is the soil. When people scrape a building to prepare it for painting, the paint goes right into the soil. Parents have young children play close to the house, so they can watch them. The source of most lead poisoning is soil and windows."
Lead paint is a concern throughout the country: nationally, about 900,000 preschoolers have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. In Rhode Island, nearly 30,000 homes are estimated to pose a high risk for children. The greatest concentration of high-risk homes is in Providence, dubbed by some activists "the lead-paint capital of the country." Providence has one of the highest lead levels nationwide because most homes were built before 1978, when lead paint was banned; most are wood rather than brick; and until Rhode Island's recent economic turnaround, urban renewal bypassed the state. Old houses weren't razed or renovated, so layers of lead paint remained-escaping unseen into the air and falling unnoticed into the soil.
How does lead poisoning affect a child?