On Tuesday, the room at the Fishtown church was packed with young parents, some with babies who gurgled throughout the community meeting on lead poisoning. They had all read in the newspapers how bad the situation was and they wanted to know what they could do to protect their families, particularly their young children.
Jana Curtis (pictured, above) and her family have lived the nightmare of childhood lead poisoning and live every day in its aftermath. She’s always thinking about it. But on Tuesday she delivered a message of hope and strength that electrified the crowd, charging them to lead the city in turning the deadly tide.
“We can be the first community and the first city where no child has high blood lead levels.”
Jana Curtis shared her family’s heartbreaking story in the Inky’s chilling expose of how toxic lead in the soil affected her middle child Nolyn. Three years ago, her house and water tested fine, but the dirt in her yard showed lead levels that were nearly three times safety limits.
“The yard was poisoning my daughter,” the Kensington mother of three told the Inquirer last month. “It’s just so horrifying.”
Only 11 months old then, daughter Nolyn’s blood test revealed levels three times higher than CDC guidelines. When her eldest daughter was a year-and-a-half old, she had 70 words in her vocabulary. At that age, Nolyn spoke only two.
Nolyn is three now and thanks to speech therapy and care from her parents, her speech is much better but significant behavioral challenges remain, she said.
Yes, she’s disappointed in what many view as the City’s lackadaisical response to this urgent crisis but she’s focused on solving the problem, not assigning blame.
Credit where due, Mayor Kenney’s leadership, which includes nearly $1 million to protect kids and enforce existing laws and forming a hard-hitting task force, has been critical to get us on the path out of this toxic lead trap. But what more?
Early this month, Allegheny County Council enacted one partial solution: legislation that mandates that all children have blood tests performed at 1 and 2 years of age. Allegheny County has a large number of children living in old lead-contaminated homes, but 2014 state data shows only 15% of eligible children were tested twice (in Philly it’s 43%) and 7.3% of those had elevated blood lead levels—that’s higher than those affected in Flint, Michigan, whose lead crisis drew national attention for months.
In fact, 20% of tested kids in Lehigh and Warren counties exceed warning levels. Clearly, every jurisdiction needs to do more to get all children tested. Unfortunately, even if more kids were found positive for lead poisoning, cities wouldn’t have the money to remediate homes. Since 2007, federal and state funds have dropped by 90% for this work.
PCCY led the charge to pass a law to get the lead out of Philadelphia’s 18,000 licensed rental units likely to house children under 6—but only 2,000 units are in compliance with this law. The City has been increasing funding and flexing the muscle of lead court, which, of the 119 cases filed against landlords, sided with the City in all but 10 decisions.
But the Mayor’s taskforce PCCY helped to establish found that it would be more efficient and safer if EVERY rental property in the city had to be certified lead safe for children. The search is on for champions to join us to make Philadelphia the first city in the nation that makes this a reality.
Jana pointed out that there’s a lot that families can do to protect their children. After she received the news her yard was poisoning her children, she radically changed her approach and replaced everything, including contaminated soil, water pipes, and paint, and she keeps her windows closed so that poisonous dust that gets kicked up doesn’t enter her home.
There’s a huge opportunity for parents and the City to work together to get much closer to Jana’s vision where no children are being poisoned by lead. When it comes to lead poisoning, we’re all in the same trap and only working as a community will we be freed.
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