Lead Levels in Brooklyn Children

This week was the moment of reckoning for Eco Brooklyn. We are constantly doing things to improve our green building techniques but it is rare that we see the numbers to either back up our claims or damn them.

But this week we did, in the form of my son’s blood level tests. One of the biggest bragging points for Eco Brooklyn is that at any stage of our building process a two year old child could safely be in the room while we do it: while we paint, while we varnish the floors, during the making of our green counters etc., the idea being that we use such healthy products and techniques that even a super sensitive child would not be harmed.

(of course this does not account for the sawdust, machine noise and other harmful things you can’t avoid on a job site)

And then once the job is done we brag that our homes are super safe for children – no chemicals in the materials etc.

And we put our actions where our mouth is but renovating a complete brownstone with a baby in the house while we did it. This was done partly out of financial necessity because we really had nowhere else to stay and partly because I believed I could safely do it:

I completely renovated our one hundred year old brownstone and show house while my family, including my two year old son lived in it.

There was dust, debris, walls with ten layers of lead paint, asbestos in the plaster and all sorts of other nasty things that we removed. We varnished floors, painted walls, glued wood, built cabinets, all with my little baby present, sometimes in the same room.

Before you call child services let me assure you we did this with intense awareness of the risks involved and spent tremendous efforts to lessen them. We kept areas ventilated and isolated, we constantly wet wiped the floor where the baby crawled, we constantly wiped his hands, we controlled dust, and we never used any toxic materials.

The goal was to use my son’s level of sensitivity as the meter for which to gauge our building. If it hurt him we wouldn’t use it. His safety was the main reason we did this of course but I used the opportunity to have him as a real and constant reminder of our mission as green builders. If he was the metric for our quality then since as my child he was obviously more important to me than anything, then we would be damn good and healthy green builders for other people and their children too.

But I was also painfully aware that this was all talk until I tested his blood levels, especially for lead. That would be the real proof and reality check. I can delude myself all I want but a blood lead level reading does not lie.

If a baby could spend the first year and a half of his life in a full on construction zone and come out healthy then I feel we would have really walked the talk and succeeded in creating a very valuable service for others. If he wouldn’t then my decisions would have been terribly and tragically wrong.

We went to the doctor last Thursday and we got the blood level results today. How were they, you ask?

Blood lead levels are rated at parts per million ppm. Up until recently in the US anything above 10 ppm was worth watching out for. Anything below 10 pmm was fine.

But in 2007 they changed the levels and 5 ppm was the new benchmark. Web MD has a good article on it.

They write:

The lead levels in the blood above 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to be a concern in children. But some studies have shown harmful effects in children with lead levels measured at or near the current standard.

“Thus, the CDC’s level of concern should be lowered to a blood lead level less than 5 micrograms per deciliter because society cannot respond to a threat until it first acknowledges it,” he said.

The message is that we are in denial and we have a lead problem. The flip side is that a lot of city children have lead around 10 ppm and they are fine. Our doctor says that children with slightly elevated lead levels is very common in his patients. These are Brooklyn families from all walks of life, rich and poor. We’re not talking poor people in Detroit (where lead poisoning is catastrophic).

An important point I think is that children will react differently to lead levels depending on other aspects in their life. Clearly healthy foods and exercise help a body release toxins. A poor inner city child will be more negatively affected by lead because their diet is bad and they aren’t given as many opportunities to exercise as a better off child who is well nourished and given exercise options.

City kids living in these 100 year old homes and old lead filled gardens are exposed to more lead than the US average, which the CDC estimates at of 2.2% of U.S. children having over 10 ppm. Here is an interesting article showing that a very large amount of Brooklyn homes contain lead way above safe levels.

It is not a new phenomenon. Most Brooklyn adults probably even had higher lead levels than the kids today. If you grew up in a home painted before the 1970’s odds are you were exposed to lead. It is debatable whether it caused you brain damage :)

A friend of ours lived in a Park Slope brownstone where the neighbors were renovating their building over the summer. It was hot and windows were open but no noticeable dust entered the apartment. In the fall their two year old son tested 19 ppm lead levels. The culprit was the imperceptible dust that wafted in through the windows and onto the floor where he crawled.

He’s fine and the parents have shrugged it off to city living.

When we tested our daughter in 2005 she had 12 ppm, which was two parts above the current accepted limit. We figured out it was due to a sliding door in the house we were in. The door grated against the wall and the lead paint dust fell on the floor where our daughter crawled merrily.

The doctor told us to deal with the door but beyond that said not to worry about it too much. To address the issue we fed her lots of blueberries, leafy vegetables and brazil nuts. We moved. Her levels went below 10 ppm in two months.

Now a couple years later, we tested her levels last week and they are below 5 ppm, which we expected. Even though she also was in our current house during the renovation she wasn’t crawling and at five years old she absorbs lead at a much lower rate than our toddler son.

Such a low lead level is something to be proud of given she just lived through a renovation where every wall, staircase and door had many layers of lead on them. We removed most of it with natural paint strippers but we also created a lot of dust from walls we had to take down.


An example of our staircase being stripped of lead paint using natural paint stripper

Then there is our back yard. “Safe” lead levels in soil should be below 100 ppm. Anything above that is considered suspect. Anything above 400 ppm is considered toxic. We tested our soil lead levels and they are two thousand ppm! It has so much lead I am having a hard time finding a soil remediation company willing to take the soil.

Again, the scientist who tested the lead was not surprised by our finding. “We get those results all the time in Brooklyn soil,” he said. How many kids are inicently playing in contaminated Brooklyn gardens?

We haven’t let the kids be out there, but who knows if dust from the back yard has gotten into the house.

Back to the levels of our son’s blood. He has 12 ppm. Not great. The doctor told us it is nothing to worry about. And from the point of view that he lived in a complete gut renovation it is fantastic. If our friends’ son had 19 ppm from imperceptible dust through a window it is a miracle our son didn’t have lead levels through the roof.

But 12 ppm is still two points above 10 and a whole seven points above the new accepted level of 5 ppm for children. And according to wikipedia, “No safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known amount of lead that is too small to cause the body harm.”

The good news is that our child has remarkably low levels given the circumstances. It is a tribute to our efforts and the ecological goal of Eco Brooklyn. The bad news is that my son has lead in his blood.

I hope he likes large amounts of blueberries, leafy vegetables and Brazil nuts because he is about to get a lot of it.

My son Cazimir watering the green roof on our newly renovated brownstone with gray water from our bathtub. The bees are in the background.


My daughter Saomi inspecting the sunflowers on our green roof in our newly renovated green brownstone

What does all this mean? On a personal level I have had to be constantly aware about the exposure my children get to lead. When walking on the sidewalk I am always on the lookout for lead contaminated doorways that they might rub their hands on. We wash their hands whenever they come in from the street. We keep wet mop all our floors every week even if they look fine. This is basic stuff but we all know it is easy to forget to do these things.

On a professional level as a Brooklyn green contractor it has made me aware of our responsibility. We can’t just go into a building and start smashing things. How many gut renovations have we seen where dust is coming out of the windows. Where does that dust go? On the sidewalk? On the car your child just rubbed his hands on? Onto the windowsill of the neighbor?

Being a green builder is not some idealistic thing about indulging our egos. It is very real. A Brooklyn contractor more than anyone else can cause child lead poisoning or prevent it. Being a green contractor in Brooklyn means rethinking how we renovate a Brownstone so that our daily activities REDUCE lead in the environment.

This means rethinking how we how we seal the home, how we dismantle walls and how we haul trash into the dumpster. These are not overly careful acts. I know from personal experience that even if you take all the precautions you possibly can your child can still be exposed to lead.

Who knows, maybe my son got lead from our lead mains water pipe (like most homes in Brooklyn), maybe he got it at the park or at his playmates home. Or very possibly our own renovation did it.

I’ll never know for sure. It could be worse. His levels will go down and he’ll be fine. And we’ll use this experience to improve Eco Brooklyn’s construction techniques.

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