By Will Atwater

Midori Brooks is no stranger to waiting. 

In 2019, the federal government awarded the City of Durham funding to perform lead abatement at high-risk sites throughout town. The funds, totaling more than $3 million dollars, were earmarked for the city’s Lead-Based Paint Reduction Program (LHR) and consisted of federal and city dollars. 

To qualify, people had to be low-income Durham city residents, who owned or rented a home “built in 1978 or earlier, where children (ages 6 and under) reside or spend significant time,” according to a program information sheet posted by the city.

The information also said that the “Lead and Healthy Homes Program anticipates property improvements in 116 eligible homes throughout the city.”

Unfortunately, the program only ran for one year (2020-2021) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did not renew the funding. It’s not clear how many of the 116 eligible homes got services. 

What is clear is that Midori Brooks’ home, located on the corner of Holloway and N. Driver Streets was not one of them. 

The City of Durham has not responded to inquiries by NC Health News regarding the project’s future, but a source with knowledge of the program said work was cut short due to complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The source also said that the city requested an extension, but HUD said no. 

So Brooks kept waiting. 

Brooks needs lead paint remediation services to address lead paint exposure on her front porch columns. Those columns worry her, because she has three grandchildren that live with her, and her 7-year-old granddaughter was tested for elevated blood lead level. At least at her most recent doctor’s visit, things looked okay, she said.

Flaking lead paint is exposed on wood columns located on Midori Brooks’s front porch. Credit: Will Atwater

As a low-income resident, Brooks has received services in the past from agencies such as Habitat for Humanity, which did a roof repair for her a few years ago, she said. She has also had a bathtub that had lead paint removed and some other lead remediation services. 

Using programs that offer free assistance for such things as home repairs can be a lifeline for many residents but may require adding your name to an extensive wait list, which may take several months, or even years, to receive assistance.

Not her first encounter with lead

As a matter of fact, Brooks has been waiting since 1995, when she and her family were living in a rental house on Kent Street. There her three children were exposed to lead. At a doctor’s visit, Brooks learned that her oldest son’s (the father of the three grandchildren who live with her) blood lead level was extremely high. Now her son is  30.

“When he was two, his lead level was 28,” said Brooks. 

After Brooks’ oldest son was diagnosed, the health department sent a contractor to the house to test for lead.

“The man had the X-ray machine on the front porch and he said that the lead on the front porch was 30 decimeters, which was a whole lot of lead,” Brooks said. 

At the time of her son’s diagnosis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that children who had a blood level reference value of 5 micrograms per deciliter should be screened by a doctor. That was down from a revised reference value of 10 micrograms per deciliters set in 1991. Before that, the reference level had been 25 micrograms per deciliter. 

In 2021, CDC lowered the blood lead levels reference value from 5 to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.

“Lead is one of those few toxins that [doesn’t] have a threshold. You don’t want any lead at all. And, in fact, there’s a lot of papers that suggest that your initial exposures per unit of lead are the most powerful,” said Daniel Richter, Duke University professor in the Division of Earth and Climate Science.

Research published in 2022 estimated that 170 million U.S. citizens who were adults in 2015 (roughly half the population) were exposed to adverse blood lead levels in early childhood. This is the case for two of Brooks’ three children.

Lead is a neurotoxin that, after entering the bloodstream, migrates to the brain, liver and kidneys, before settling in the bones and teeth, where it accumulates over time. Additionally, studies show that it is particularly harmful to young children and developing fetuses, as it can travel from bones and enter the bloodstream during pregnancy. Research has also shown that lead exposure can result in lower IQs, reduced cognitive function and behavioral problems. 

The consensus is converging on the idea that there’s no safe blood lead level at all.

Once Brooks learned of her son’s high lead levels, she was advised to see a specialist who told her that her son would have lifelong issues related to lead exposure. 

A couple of years later, with the help of an attorney, Brooks sued her former landlord’s estate and won a settlement. (As a result, for 10 years, starting on his 18th birthday, her son received a settlement check). At the hearing, Brooks received an apology—for the lead poisoning her son suffered while living in the rental property—from the landlord’s sister, who was the executor of the late landlord’s estate. Brooks responded by letting the woman know that money was not going to make the problem disappear. 

“Ma’am, this money is nothing to me,” Brooks recounts telling the sister. “There are things that I’m going to have to deal with until either I die or he dies … that’s the sad thing.” 

In addition to the settlement checks, Brooks’ son also received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) when he was younger, but, according to Brooks, was denied continued SSI support at a review hearing in 2019, that she was unable to attend with him. 

He no longer receives any financial assistance related to his childhood lead exposure.

Lead: a brief history

For years, in the U.S., three primary pathways to lead exposure were lead-based paints, leaded gasoline, and lead plumbing and fixtures.

Lead-based paint was banned in 1978, but houses built before this date, that have not been remodeled, are likely to have traces of lead paint particles and/or lead plumbing contained within the structure. 

Lead contamination is also likely to be lurking in the soil located around the home’s foundation. As lead paint ages, it can chip, create dust particles, settle onto clothes, and be eaten by toddlers. What is more, lead dust was known to have a sweet taste, which makes it even more dangerous in homes where young children live.

The transition away from leaded gasoline began in the 1970s, and it was finally banned in 1996. Cars that used leaded gasoline produced exhaust fumes as they traveled along highways and streets that bordered residential communities. Adults and children in adjacent yards or playgrounds or sitting on porches inhaled these fumes. Lead contaminants from exhaust also settled into the soils of adjacent yards and playgrounds, and in some communities, remain a lead contamination hazard zone.

In 1986, Congress banned the use of lead pipes in “public water systems or plumbing in facilities providing water for human consumption.” Even at this late date, though, cities like Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey, have had well documented struggles with replacing lead-based waterlines.

Although contamination has declined, problems still exist.

“From 1976-1980 to 2015-2016, blood lead levels for the population aged 1 to 74 years” fell by roughly 94 percent. “Yet, one half million children aged 1 to 5 years have blood lead levels  at or above the blood lead reference value of 5 micrograms per deciliter, according to a 2019 National Institutes of Health report.

Also, children in low-income households who live in homes built before 1978 are at a greater risk of lead exposure, according to the CDC.

A new resource

In June, NC Child, a nonprofit organization that advocates for children’s welfare, launched a new housing database that “provides parents, realtors and renovators with easy access to information about whether a home contains risks from lead-based paint.”

After entering Brooks’ address into the database, the information that came up included the year the house was built (1907), the lead status (unknown) and the county (Durham). 

Families can access that map to make decisions about where to live and the risks in their homes by going to the following web address: https://leadfreenc.org/. Once on the site, you will be directed to a NC state map. A space is provided to enter an address.

But given that house was built decades before 1978, it is likely to have had lead paint and/or fixtures at some point. This is certainly true with the Brooks home. 

“If you’re buying or renting a new home, we want to make it easy to find out whether the home is lead-safe,” said Vikki Crouse, research program director at NC Child. “Lead-based paint is the biggest source of lead exposure for young children. The good news is that you can prevent exposure, and prevent harm, when you have the facts.”  

NC Child noted that Concord, Wilmington and Kinston are NC hotspots for potential lead  exposure because they have a “high rate of older homes, as well as a high incidence of children exposed to lead, compared with other parts of the state.”

The organization also found that Black and Latino children, because they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with older housing, are at higher risk of lead exposure.

“Almost a third of Black and Hispanic children are experiencing poverty compared to about 10 percent of white children,” Crouse said. “There is a significant disparity there that can tell us a lot about the sort of environment that children are growing up in with regards to … housing, and the sort of investments that we might see in their communities.”

Battered but determined

After battling to keep her family safe from lead exposure for almost three decades and struggling to keep up with house maintenance, Brooks is tired of waiting. Nonetheless, she’s determined to keep fighting for what she has. Sitting on her porch she bears witness to the change engulfing her neighborhood that’s just south of downtown.

“I know the market value of these houses are going up around us with gentrification going on,” she said. ”But I’m not going to sit there and let them push me out of my house when I’ve worked hard to get where I am now.”

For now, Brooks uses the one lead remediation tool she has available to her — Spic and Span — to keep her window seals and floors free of lead dust while she waits.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Will Atwater

Will Atwater has spent the past decade working with educators, artists and community-based organizations as a short-form documentary and promotional video producer. A native North Carolinian, Will grew...