By Jon Campbell
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For years, Peter Vallone has made a practice of attending morning Mass, where he presumably seeks guidance for his job as Speaker of the City Council. But Vallone might do well to substitute, just once, his daily church routine with a visit to the Bronx, specifically to Montefiore Medical Center Thursday morning clinics for children who are poisoned by lead. Such a trip might prove especially useful now, as Vallone is orchestrating a roiling battle over the city's lead-paint laws. The speaker appears to be locked in the clutches of a powerful landlord lobby that wants to ditch its responsibility for keeping apartments and children lead safe.
At press time Monday, a council committee was hearing testimony on a bill drafted by Vallone's staff, much to the liking of the city's largest landlord lobby. The bill would give building owners tremendous latitude to ignore lead-paint hazards and would allow them such wide berth in removing the paint that medical experts warn it will likely cause lead poisoning cases to rise. (See Voice,"Peter's Poisoned Pen," June 15.) The council is likely to vote on the bill on Tuesday, June 29.
"That bill is wrong because there's a lot of kids who get sick, and the politicians and landlords don't have to deal with them, we do," says Wanda Arache, who has been a regular at Montefiore's Thursday clinics ever since her three-year-old son, Christopher Lee Arache, was diagnosed as lead poisoned in 1997. Now, Christopher speaks little but is so aggressive his mother describes him as "violent." Arache says Christopher regularly hits her and his two-year-old brother and bangs his own head against the wall. "And when he gets mad, forget about it," she says. "His behavior changes like that!" she says, snapping her fingers. "It drives me crazy."
Christopher Arache is one of about 40 youngsters ranging from two months to 12 years old who come to the Montefiore clinic so doctors can track the amount of lead that has tainted the children's blood and settled in their bones. Children like Arache, four-year-old John Faulkner, five-year-old Usama Babir and his two-year-old brother Islam Muhmed Beg, and others who come to the Thursday clinics have high lead levels at least 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. A Tuesday clinic treats children with blood lead levels below 20.
The consequences for children in both groups can be enormous. Complaints range from chronic stomach aches, vomiting, and constipation to permanent brain damage. Studies associate an IQ drop of nearly six points for every 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Learning is also disrupted by behavioral problems common to lead-contaminated children: many are hyperactive and suffer attention deficit disorder; others are lethargic. Studies have linked lead exposure to juvenile delinquency.
Most lead exposure occurs in the apartments where children live thus the interest of the real estate lobby, which complains about the expense of lead abatement and liability in civil suits brought on behalf of poisoned children. Vallone's bill offers landlords several weeks to remediate lead paint without following strict Department of Health (DOH) guidelines a change that could exacerbate the problem, sources say, by failing to thoroughly remove easily ingested lead dust.
"The bottom line is that if we admit a child for treatment and then have to send them back to the type of environment that the Vallone bill permits, that would be medical malpractice," says Dr. John Rosen, a pediatrician and national expert on lead poisoning who runs the lead clinic at Montefiore. "This is all politics with the real estate industry and unfortunately, the children of New York will be held hostage."
By 9 o'clock last Thursday morning, the waiting room in Rosen's clinic was packed with youngsters, most under five years old, watching Teletubbiesand parading about with bandages covering their arms where blood had been drawn. Among them were the sons of Mirzza Farooq Beg, Islam Muhmed, and Usama Babir.
"The doctor called me and said your babies have the lead," said Beg, a 43-year-old Pakistani immigrant. Islam Muhmed was poisoned with a lead level of 24 micrograms per deciliter; Usama Babir had a lead level of 17. The diagnoses came during a routine physical; the only change Beg had noticed in his sons was a slight drop in their appetites. "The problem with lead is that it can be so devastating, but the symptoms are so vague," says Meagan Charlop, who works at the clinic. "It's not like a nice measles rash."
Lead is as persistent as it is insidious. It not only courses through the blood where it can be somewhat reduced through diet and medicine it also lodges in bones. Such deposits become mobilized if a bone breaks. Pregnancy also reactivates bone-based lead, and a mother can pass it on to her fetus and in breast milk. In the past year alone, Rosen says at least 15 lead-poisoned newborns have been treated. One 16-month-old was brought in with a shocking lead level of 287 micrograms per deciliter.
After Beg's sons were diagnosed, he says, DOH tested the Bronx apartment where he had lived for 11 years and found lead paint. Beg moved in with relatives, and says he paid a contractor $4800 of his own money to fix his apartment.
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.