NANTICOKE — Kieran Hamacher seemingly is a happy 2-year-old who loves playing with balls, bouncing on his mini-trampoline and keeping tabs on the neighborhood by looking out the windows. But these days he’s no longer allowed to peer out of the apartment windows.
Kieran had dangerously high lead levels in his blood, and health officials suspect paint chips and dust from those windows might have been the source of the potentially poisonous substance.
Kieran lives in Nanticoke with his parents, Blake and Charlotte Hamacher, and his 9-year-old sister, Caitlyn. When Kieran’s blood was checked during a routine doctor’s visit a few months ago, his lead levels were recorded at 52 micrograms per deciliter. Anything more than 10 is considered dangerous.
Lead poisoning has no immediate symptoms, and children often ingest the paint chips because they taste sweet. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body.
In Luzerne County, a state Department of Health report shows that in 2011, 45 children in Luzerne County were identified with lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Of these, 16 were residents of Wilkes-Barre.
Wilkes-Barre is one of 20 target cities in the state where lead poisoning is detected at a rate of more than twice that of non-targeted areas and nearly 40 percent more than the state on average. The city makes the list because it has a high percentage of low-income families, large numbers of children younger than 7, and older housing.
Children younger than 6 are most at risk because their bodies are growing quickly and because they are more likely to put hands or dust-coated items in their mouths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC estimates at least 500,000 U.S. children have blood lead levels above the 5 micrograms per deciliter level. This is the level at which the CDC recommends public-health action.
Every state has different laws about lead poisoning prevention.
As Pennsylvania law requires, the Hamachers’ landlord had disclosed to them the home was built before 1978 and presented them with a pamphlet on the risks of lead paint when the family moved into their apartment three and a half years ago, Blake Hamacher said.
Any house built before 1978 is likely to have some lead-based paint, according to the CDC. It estimates that about 24 million housing units have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust.
Once Kieran was diagnosed with lead poisoning, the Hamachers moved quickly. Charlotte, Kieran and Caitlyn stayed at a friend’s house for a few days while they decided what to do next. Charlotte Hamacher anxiously waited for more information on both Kieran and the state of their apartment.
Kieran was immediately put on chelation therapy, his parents said. The medication binds with the lead and removes it from the body through urine. He was dosed twice a day for the first five days, then once a day for the next two weeks, his parents said. The therapy caused vomiting and diarrhea, but it helped to remove the lead from his body.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Health came to the Hamacher’s apartment to try to pinpoint from where the lead was coming.
“They took a meter and checked the windows where there was active chipping,” said Blake Hamacher. “They also saw that the paint was being scraped inside the tracks.”
Kieran’s habit of looking out of the window apparently was causing the problem, Blake Hamacher said. “He was ingesting dust and debris as his hands went into his mouth,” he said.
The family had to decide what to do about a place to live and ultimately opted to stay. The apartment has been remediated, Kieran’s parents said, and the deteriorating paint has been removed, sanded and then repainted.
Part of their decision was based on the fact that Caitlyn showed no levels of lead in her blood. The parents decided Kieran most likely was getting the lead through paint chips and not through possible lead dust in the air or on the carpet.
“We still have fear that he could pick it up,” said Charlotte Hamacher. “We’re following the state health guidelines while still living in the place.”
Part of those guidelines include vacuuming and mopping each day. The Hamachers also have moved furniture in front of the windows, blocking them, so that Kieran can’t get close to them.
Blake Hamacher had this advice for other parents: “Don’t try to fool yourself. Have your children checked.”
He was surprised to find out from his son’s pediatrician that most parents won’t have their children tested for lead. He explained that paint is not the only source of lead poisoning for children. The state health department asked him about hobbies that might have lead components, he said, including stained glass, fishing tackle and lead solder.
“Mental retardation is one of the effects at even low levels of exposure,” he said.
Happily for the Hamachers, Kieran has been checked for developmental delays but is on track for his age. “Kieran is fine,” his father said.
Charlotte Hamacher added, “We’ve been blessed.”
Even so, the Hamachers explained that Kieran will need blood tests for the rest of his life. If the lead is now in his bones, it could spike to dangerous levels again at any time during his life.
For now, Kieran appears to be getting much better. After therapy, Kieran’s lead levels dropped to 34, then to 27, and he will be checked again soon.
Tara Landis, program manager for Pennsylvania’s Lead and Healthy Homes Program, said that parents should have their children tested whether they live in an older home or not. “We recommend for all children at the age of one year and also at two years that they have a blood test.”
Landis said that more Pennsylvania children are being tested but confirmed cases of high lead levels are going down. She attributes that to several factors including the ban on lead in consumer products 30 years ago.
She also credits the public health and medical community for raising awareness of the problem.
Landis recommends that anyone living in a home built before 1978 should check for chipping or peeling paint. She said homeowners can remediate the area themselves if they follow specific steps like wet sanding which reduces lead dust.