By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Beg's boys are shy and cling to their father. Usama Babir answers questions only with a nod, but he seems to understand them. That's more than John Faulkner, another child at the Montefiore clinic, can do. In fact, the four-year-old can barely talk, communicating instead by humming and whining in an odd, sing-song style that only his mother, Monica Bennett, understands.
"He gets speech therapy three times a week, but he knocks his head on the wall, and almost everything sets him off," says Bennett, whose son still wears diapers. John's first lead test last September found a level of 38 micrograms per deciliter; treatments have brought it down to 31.
Bennett says peeling lead paint abounded in her Jessup Avenue apartment, and John got poisoned the way most children do by crawling about as an infant and putting his hands in his mouth. Bennett's landlord quickly fixed the apartment following DOH protocol, and it is now lead safe. But Bennett continues to worry for John. "I want him to be normal like other kids, but now, he doesn't correspond with nobody," says the Jamaican-born Bennett. "When you talk to him, he just sits and rocks by himself."
Wanda Arache learned of her son's lead poisoning by telegram in December 1997; the child's pediatrician was so alarmed by finding 47 micrograms per deciliter in the then one-year-old's blood, a telegram seemed appropriate. Christopher underwent chelation, which introduces a drug into the blood that binds with lead and ultimately carries it out in urine. Chelation is done only when lead levels hit 45, usually requires five days in the hospital, and does not rid the blood of lead entirely.
Christopher's lead level has dropped to the mid 30s. "Even now, he's not that good," says Arache, who notes that a recent intelligence evaluation found her son is a year behind his peers. "He's too hyper, too aggressive," she says, as the child bounces out of her lap and down the clinic's hallway. "He mumbles, and I can't understand him. It's stressful for me."
Arache tries to mitigate the poison's wrath by enhancing the calcium in her son's diet, since lead damages a child's brain in part by interfering with calcium, which is key in neurotransmission, and ultimately blocking or twisting messages to the brain.
When Christopher's poisoning was discovered, Arache moved into Montefiore's "Safe House," six apartments where families stay until their own homes are safe. She stayed there for three months.
Montefiore's six units are among only nine citywide. Their existence is as important as it is ironic: Despite the fact that lead's dangers are well-known, grave, and entirely avoidable, children must seek safety in another home, because their own offers none.