Exposing an Invisible and Silent Monster Devouring Our Children (Part 2)

May 7, 2008 at 10:05 am Leave a comment

This is the second in a series of three posts on the historic community response to lead poisoning in Rochester New York. You can read the first post here.

After becoming Principal of an urban, high-needs elementary school in Rochester, I set out to “level the playing field” for my school’s children and community. After raising nearly seven million dollars, replacing almost the entire school teaching staff, and creating numerous school/community partnerships, I noticed that I still had a core of children with critically serious learning and behavioral deficits. Puzzled by this, I was the first principal known to review my school children’s public health records, and what I found horrified me. What follows is the second of a three-part story of the epic battle with what I call “the invisible and silent monster that devours our children”. — Ralph Spezio

“Lifting the Rock and Exposing the Monster”

At this point, I received permission to view the Monroe County Health records of the children that attended my school, and what I found as I studied each folder stunned and horrified me. There emerged a common denominator for all of the children who were having severe difficulties with learning and/or behavior:

  • Of the 3, 4, and 5 year old children who lived in the neighborhood and were coming to school for the first time, 41% of them had medical histories of blood-lead levels that were over 10 mg/dl (micrograms per deciliter). The Center for Disease Control states that this blood-lead level and levels that are even lower can cause permanent brain damage and loss of IQ.
  • It is important to note that many of the children in this cohort were not included in this 41% (even though they had many of the same symptoms) because they had no medical histories of a blood lead screening as required by NYS law.
  • It is also important to note that, when I looked in their medical records, 100% of my special education children also had histories of high blood-lead levels.

I called childhood lead poisoning the “invisible and silent monster that was devouring our children right before our very eyes”. It reduces their IQ, and in doing so, it steals their future. The houses surrounding my urban elementary school were mostly rented out and owned by landlords that did not live within that community. Most were built at the end of the 1800’s and were in serious disrepair. These houses, the houses where children ate, slept, played, and lived were toxic. Nearly one-half of my children, coming to school from these houses, had medical blood-lead readings that were alarmingly high, causing physical problems, brain damage, and permanent loss of IQ.

The Rochester community was completely outraged, especially when they were educated regarding the devastation that lead poisoning can do to a developing child. Children can be severely lead poisoned, not only from deteriorated housing, but also from a remodeling job that does not employ lead-safe work practices. Urban, suburban, and rural communities are all affected by this silent monster.

The neuropsychological problems associated with lead poisoning are insidious and severe. This potent neurotoxic element creates serious cognitive and behavioral problems for children. These problems include:

  • Delayed language or motor milestone in infants and toddlers
  • Poor speech articulation
  • Poor language understanding or usage
  • Problems maintaining attention in school or home
  • High activity level (hyperactivity)
  • Problems with learning and remembering new information
  • Rigid, inflexible problem-solving abilities
  • Delayed general intellectual abilities
  • Learning problems in school (reading, language, math, and writing)
  • Problems controlling behavior (e.g., aggressive, impulsive)
  • Problems with fine or gross motor coordination

The physical symptoms include headaches, irritability, abdominal pain, vomiting, anemia, blood pressure problems, kidney disease, skeletal problems and a list too numerous to continue. There is no safe level or threshold for lead in a developing child’s body.

Nearly one half of our children at School No.17 were coming to school for the first time from the surrounding homes with permanent damage from lead poisoning. The lead poisoning monster knows how to hide and disguise itself so that it remains invisible. An invisible enemy can take bites and chucks out of a population at will. The only way to fight an invisible enemy is to put a face on that enemy, and we put a face on the monster of lead poisoning through education and policy change. That is what the Rochester/Monroe County community has done and continues to do.

Next: “Child Advocacy and a Community’s Heroic Response”

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Entry filed under: Children, Environmental Health.

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