Homemade Poison

Notre Dame health experts respond to lead crisis

Brittany Griffith and her husband, David, believed that buying their first house on the near northwest side of South Bend in 2012 marked a huge step toward the American dream.

“We didn’t mind the area because we were college students, young and progressive,” she said. “The house was quaint and small and well taken care of by an older couple who bought it in the ’40s.”

“Nobody thinks when they buy a house that it’s going to hurt you.”

Four years later, that idyllic vision curdled. A blood test revealed the Griffiths’ 2-year-old son Atticus had elevated levels of lead in his system, which can lead to serious cognitive, developmental and behavioral problems in children, ranging from hyperactivity to lower IQ. They have since learned that they live in a home and neighborhood with the highest levels of lead poisoning in Indiana.

“Nobody thinks when they buy a house that it’s going to hurt you,” she said. “It’s scary that we’re living with a neurotoxin on the inside and out. It was so easy to buy the house, but now we’re deep in a well scraping to get out.”

Griffith said Atticus hasn’t reached normal milestones for his age. Despite nearing his third birthday, he doesn’t speak words beyond “mama” or show interest in solid foods. He’s had so much blood drawn for tests that he has a meltdown if he thinks they’re in a doctor’s office. She knows the problems can cascade into educational and behavioral challenges that last a lifetime.

Atticus Griffith, 2

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers blood lead levels at 5 micrograms per deciliter or above to be elevated. Atticus tested at 12.9.

“It’s heartbreaking; there’s a lot of shame and guilt, things that I think about late at night,” Griffith said. “We’re still trying to determine what is or isn’t related to lead poisoning.”

The Griffiths are among hundreds of families in their neighborhood who learned last December that nearly a third of kids tested there over a decade had elevated levels of lead in their blood. The CDC estimates that about 2.5 percent of kids nationwide have elevated levels. In the year after the well-publicized water crisis in Flint, Michigan, 5 percent of kids tested there had high blood lead levels.

The re-exposure of the lead problem happened last fall. A 2016 state study that analyzed a decade of lead testing finally broke the results down by census tract. Last September, St. Joseph County Health Officer Dr. Luis Galup recognized that he needed some help. State pressure to follow new CDC limits ― which lowered the threshold for case management from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5 ― would likely identify more children than the county could handle.

A blood lead level (BLL) test, conducted with a finger-prick or blood draw, measures lead in blood in micrograms per deciliter (mg/dL).

<0 (mg/dL) Lead occurs naturally in the human body, with trace amounts found in blood even at birth. Still, the CDC says even the smallest levels of lead exposure can be unsafe for the developing brains of children.
1.0-1.3 (mg/dL) Average blood lead level among U.S. children ages 1-5.
5 (mg/dL) The CDC's updated threshold to consider a child's blood level elevated, which warrants close monitoring, reporting to parents or case management. An estimated half a million U.S. children likely reach this level.
10 (mg/dL) The CDC's previous threshold to require closer attention and public health action, such as inspection of the poisoned child's home to identify potential sources. This level can lead to problems like lower IQ and hyperactivity.
45 (mg/dL) This level of poisoning may require hospitalization and chelation drug treatment, which helps the body excrete lead.
<70 (mg/dL) If not treated, acute lead poisoning can cause seizures, coma and death.
Sources: CDC, State health agencies, Poisoning prevention programs, U.S. EPA