What would you do if your children were lead poisoned?
Ask Tamara Rubin.
The Portland, Oregon mother of four was stunned to discover that two of her sons had been poisoned by fumes generated when a painting contractor failed to use lead safe work practices on the exterior of their historic home.
Her first response was to do what we’d all do: learn everything she possibly could about lead poisoning.
But she also did something most of us might only dream of doing: she started a non-profit organization to raise awareness about the issue and to give other parents tools they need to protect their children.
That was six years ago. Today, her organization, Lead Safe America Foundation (LSAF), has become one of the nation’s leading advocates for reducing childhood exposure to lead. Tamara was recently in Flint and shared the stage with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a community forum on the lead-in-water crisis facing the city of Flint, Michigan.
“This is truly a bi-partisan issue (a “trans-partisan” issue); everyone wants all of our kids to be safe and protected!…Lead is a potent neurotoxin,” said Tamara. “Experts now agree that even at trace amounts, there is no ‘safe’ level of lead in a child’s blood. According to the CDC’s own estimates, one in three American children under 18 years old today has had a blood lead level of 2.5 Ug/dL in their lifetime. This works out to more than 22,000,000 American children.”
After her sons were poisoned, Tamara discovered parents across the country faced similar challenges: difficulty finding useful information and communicating with pediatricians about the issue, and the difficulty in locating emergency, lead-safe short-term alternative housing to get their kids to safety.
She tackled those problems by pulling together an advisory group of experts, compiling easy-to-understand resources, and building partnerships with other advocates, groups, and companies whose technologies help people detect lead in and around their homes.
Today, LSAF offers these services:
- Intervention and support to families whose children have been diagnosed as positive for lead in their blood.
- Outreach and education for the primary prevention of early childhood lead poisoning.
- Support to get parents the information and resources they need to help not only themselves and their kids, but also other parents in the same situation.
LSAF distributes free lead test kits so parents can test paint and common household items that may contain lead. They offer free testing of soil and household goods that are sent to them, such as toys, lunch boxes, kids’ jewelry, and dishes. Plus, LSAF awards modest grants to families needing emergency assistance if their children have been poisoned. (Here’s a list of costs covered.)
Tamara’s ultimate dream is to create a national “Safe House” program.
“For most families with a lead-poisoned child or children, the first, critical action is to remove the family from their unsafe environment…This may be practically impossible since it can be so hard to find a suitable lead-safe rental property to move the family to, as well as one that might accept a family with several children (and perhaps pets as well).”
LSAF hopes to eventually purchase and maintain LSAF “safe houses” in major metropolitan areas in the country, starting with cities including Flint (MI), Rochester (NY), Boston, Los Angeles, New Orleans and her home city of Portland (OR).
However, it’s important not to ignore other possible contamination locales as well. Tamara cautions that lead contamination often goes undetected in childcare centers, schools and playgrounds.
Tamara wants parents and public officials to understand that “Even seemingly small amounts of lead can cause permanent, irreversible damage to children,” and the earlier a child is poisoned, the greater potential harm.
“It is important that all children be tested early and regularly for lead in their blood even if no specific source of lead is suspected,” advises Tamara. In fact, LSAF recommends maternal testing pre-conception, followed by routine maternal blood lead testing during pregnancy and after delivery so that the blood lead level of a child can be determined at birth without needing to test the infant. If a woman tests positive for lead prior to conception, parents should make sure their home is lead-safe. Future moms might also want to try natural detox methods prior to conception.
LSAF suggests testing babies before they start to crawl, and then again 6 to 8 months later (crawling around on floors contaminated with lead dust is a primary source of exposure), with possible follow-up testing during annual well-visit checks or immunization appointments.
“No child should ever be lead poisoned,” says Tamara. “We know the cause, and we know the disastrous impact it can have; it is the single most expensive, yet also the single most preventable, environmental health issue in America today. It can easily be eradicated by focusing on primary prevention.”