RACINE, Wis. — Arvan Johnson, an 11-year-old boy headed into middle school, knows about the lead poisoning that happened when he was a baby.
While he doesn’t remember it, his mother, Leanna Jones, told him how he used to crawl on the floor when he was a baby in their apartment on Martin Luther King Drive. She remembers seeing small paint chips on the floor. As he grew older, she noticed his speech was delayed. That’s how the doctors discovered his lead poisoning.
Staff screened him for lead poisoning with a finger prick test during a well-baby checkup at the Women, Infants and Children’s (WIC) Clinic. Noting that his lead levels were elevated, this prompted a trip to the pediatrician’s office for further evaluation. Doctors told Jones there was no safe lead level in the blood and that Arvan’s blood lead levels hovered around 10 micrograms per deciliter. Today’s standard for monitoring blood lead levels in children under five now is 3.5 micrograms per deciliter as the benchmark for concern.
“I never thought anything of it,” she said. “And my son, who was only one and a half when we moved into this apartment, of course, crawled on the floor.”
So began Arvan’s struggle in a place that expects him to regulate himself physically, emotionally and mentally. He lives in a world that tests his capacity to learn but doesn’t always favor those who take longer to understand the world around them.
Looking at Arvan, people see a young Black boy who can’t sit still, sounds funny and struggles to read others’ social cues. But what most don’t understand about Arvan is that lead poisoning damaged his brain and nervous system. It slowed his growth and development while impacting his hearing and speech.
Jones learned the lead poisoning would rob her son of his potential if she didn’t get him help.
Children exposed to lead, even in small amounts, may experience developmental delays, lower IQ levels and behavioral issues. Lead exposure can lead to premature births and lower birth weights in pregnant mothers. In adults, long-term exposure may result in high blood pressure and kidney dysfunction, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
“My son is now 11 years old. He has been clinically diagnosed with Tourette’s tics, ADHD, anxiety with mixed depression with an adjustment disorder,” Jones said.
Brian Weaver, the lead policy adviser to the Division of Public Health at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said the danger of lead poisoning in children is being stressed as a critical public health concern.
“Children who frequently reside in older rental properties constructed before 1978 may face detrimental housing conditions,” Weaver said.
About 75% of the housing stock in the City of Racine was built before 1978, according to officials from the Racine Public Health Department. In these cases, poorly maintained or deteriorating lead paint becomes a significant concern.
How children become exposed to lead
Young children, typically between the ages of 12 months and three years, unintentionally ingest this harmful substance due to their inherent habits of frequently touching objects and their mouths.
The chipping, peeling or flaking paint is often found inside and outside the property, particularly along the perimeter, such as the drip line. Consequently, ingesting lead dust or paint chips becomes a primary route of exposure for these children. This prevailing situation represents the unfortunate reality that these children become victims of lead poisoning.
The evidence is stark and evident when a child tests positive or meets the criteria for an elevated blood lead level, necessitating a public health response from the local authorities, Weaver said.
What is significant to note is that lead poisoning is 100% preventable, yet its presence in the environment continues to be a persistent issue.
“Speech delay, troubles in hearing, cognitive reduction in IQ can happen with some children who are more or less poisoned, and that impact can have lifelong implications for those children,” said Weaver.
The gravity of the situation lies in the immediate dangers and the potential lifelong effects on children’s development. However, as Weaver affirmed, there is hope that prevention methods are well-known.
“So that’s really why parents and policymakers and the public should be concerned about this, and we know how to prevent exposure to children,” he concluded.
Doctors told Jones that even though Arvan’s body is 11 years old, his social age is six because of an adjustment disorder that prevents him from reading social cues from others.
“Recalling situations is more difficult,” Jones said. “He thinks in more detail rather than bigger picture issues, not problem-solving.”
Read more about how to prevent lead exposure.
Food helps mitigate the impact of lead poisoning
Consuming a nutritious diet is a beneficial approach to reduce lead levels effectively.
Health professionals recognize the need to provide nutritional counseling that emphasizes calcium, vitamin D and iron. Iron and lead compete with each other for absorption, and those with an iron deficiency can absorb up to seven times more lead than those without, according to Lead Action News.
Recommendations include incorporating fruit into every meal, as vitamin C can quadruple iron absorption, thereby mitigating harmful lead effects. Promoting iron-enriched foods, such as cereals and meats, further underscores the diet’s crucial role in safeguarding against environmental contaminants. This approach marks a significant stride in understanding and combating the widespread health risks of lead exposure.
Due to the high cost of fresh food, Jones relied on her WIC benefits to cover the expenses of nutritious items such as yogurt, milk and vegetables.
“I was a young mother; I didn’t have the greatest nine-to-five job at the time,” she said. “I was getting paid just above minimum wage, and the mother of two. And at that time, because I was working, I did not get the best benefits from FoodShare. So you know, most of the money was already going to regular day-to-day meals.”
But they made it work. She moved to a different apartment and worked on feeding Arvan healthier food options. Eight months later, Arvan’s blood lead levels dropped to 4.6. But the damage had already been done.
“I felt like a failure,” Jones said.
With the help of Arvan’s doctor, the Racine Public Health Department, and the school district, a village formed around Arvan that would help him through speech therapy, school psychologists, and teachers.
Today, when Arvan sees words in a book he doesn’t always understand, he’ll make them up. Even though he’ll be in the sixth grade, he reads at a fourth-grade level. He prefers not to read aloud. When he tries to pronounce certain words, they sound funny because he has trouble saying some of the letters, and sometimes, the other children in his class bully him.
A bit of a jokester, Arvan exudes warmth in a fidgety way. He wants to be loved. He doesn’t always understand why he sees doctors, therapists and psychologists all of the time. But he does know it has to do with “the poisoning.”
Still, the impact of lead poisoning on Arvan is profound, affecting him physically, emotionally and mentally.
A classmate in the first grade told Arvan he should just cut himself because he would be better off dead. Arvan didn’t understand the situation. Jones struggled to find ways to help him understand.
“At this point, I’m lost. I don’t know how to help my son. He was depressed at the age of seven. I caught on a little too late because I wasn’t aware of what was available for support for me and my son.”
With the help of professionals, Arvan and Jones have a better system to help work through the challenges of his social disorder through problem-solving techniques.
“He tries,” she said. “He’s shown a lot of progress in different areas, and we celebrate those.”
Arvan wonders why he has all these things to deal with but is proud of his accomplishments.
“I really don’t want to brag, but I got a really good test score in reading,” he said.
What’s next for Arvan
Despite the hurdles, Jones’ resilience and advocacy for her son have been instrumental in his progress. Because of her efforts, he has a team of teachers, speech therapists, doctors and school counselors helping her son. She wishes for a stronger support system for parents facing similar challenges and a greater awareness of lead poisoning in communities.
“I think that boy just wants to be happy, and he wants the people around him to be happy,” she said. “But, yeah, he has ADHD and struggles with social skills. He doesn’t always understand when someone is upset, and that sometimes leads to conflicts.”
But most recently, there have been wins. Arvan’s reading scores have improved to a fourth-grade level after being at the third-grade level.
“If we hadn’t gotten the diagnosis and gotten the help with the doctors… it was important for us to know what was causing it, and they gave us the proper recommendation for services,” she said. “It gave me more compassion for him.”
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