My Lead-Poisoned Year

My Lead-Poisoned Year


Items from the Alameda County Lead Museum.

A mother reflects on her daughter’s brush with lead poisoning and contemplates living with uncertainty.

Lead glistens, and has a thickness and softness. Molten. Pliable.

A woman in a white hazmat suit, covered head to toe, was standing in front of my small Albany house, pointing up to the roof edge over the front porch, painted white. “See the gloss,” she said. “That’s a spot. Too.”

The night before her visit, I struggled to sleep, imagining wee flecks of lead traveling through my daughter’s bloodstream, intermingling with cells in her heart, lungs, brain.

Helpless. A mother wraps her arms tightly around her child on a chilly day, grips her hand crossing a busy street, secures the fence in the backyard, stocks the kitchen with organic milk and vegetables, doles out daily vitamins flavored berry or orange.

But lead. Sneaky, silent lead. Utilitarian lead. Evil metal cousin to flashy silver and gold. Stuff of pipes and paint and gas additives, not fancy earrings and rings.

I couldn’t protect my daughter from lead.

When Beatrice was in third grade, 12 years ago, she had a few bad months. Extra grumpy. Crying more than usual, and inconsolable. Coming home from school leaking anxiety.

A child with developmental disabilities, my daughter isn’t always easy to read. She’s packed with thoughts, memories, ideas, and feelings, but getting them out to the rest of us isn’t simple for her, though she tries. It takes patience. Translation.

This comes as autopilot mom-dom to me, but even with my ability to sense my girl, I wasn’t understanding her well that year. Her diet was OK; she was sleeping. I liked her teacher a great deal, was generally happy with her school. Life at home hadn’t changed in any dramatic way. My small family was stable, our routines even-keeled.

What was making her world so hard?

As any parent would, I pushed in. Set up a meeting at her school. Scheduled an appointment with her doctor.

None of this, by the way, is too out of the ordinary for a disabled child. The waves peak and crash and you learn to ride them. I know the difference; my younger child falls into the realm of “normal,” a different parenting sea. Rocky too, sure, but less fraught.

The call came on a crazy February weekday morning as I was trying to get us all out the door. The woman said she was from the Alameda County lead poisoning program and needed to talk to me about my daughter’s recent blood test.

My gut clenched, and I was confused. Yes, my daughter had had a checkup a couple of days before, and, yes, this included a blood screening. But we were with Kaiser, not the county.

I paused, leaning against the dining room wall.

Beatrice’s blood lead level was dangerously high. Poisoned. Kaiser—and other health care providers—sends elevated lead results immediately to the county, which is mandated to find the source of exposure and work to end it. The woman was kind. “We need to meet with you at your house to get information.”

Gotta get the kids to school. Gotta get to work. Have piles of things to do, errands and tasks and meetings and obligations. “I have some time in about two weeks,” I replied, a little tersely.

A moment of silence. And then, “We really can’t wait two weeks. You need to understand that this situation is serious. How about today or tomorrow?”