No wonder doctors at Sixteenth Street were alarmed a couple of years ago when confronted with two months-old babies with near-astronomical blood-lead levels. The first, daughter to a young mother who was herself poisoned as a child, underwent three grueling “chelation” treatments – a somewhat dangerous procedure that forces lead out of the body – before the age of 6 months. “We had never seen anything like this before,” says Carmen Reinmund, an outreach worker in Sixteenth Street’s Department of Environmental Health. “There were paint chips in this little girl’s intestines,” she says, a puzzling discovery, as the youngster couldn’t yet walk or crawl and was exhibiting no outward signs of poisoning (infants sometimes don’t).
As is standard practice in such cases, Carmen and other specialists completed what they call “interim measures” at the South Side apartment where the baby and mother were staying. This amounted to vacuuming up paint chips and dust, and taping over window frames that were peeling badly. But the mother kept moving. “We kept chasing them,” Carmen says, vacuuming and chelating until the baby’s lead levels eventually went down.
How they’d risen so high in the first place remained something of a mystery. Some of the invading metal in the girl’s bloodstream, if not the paint chips in her intestines, could have crossed over from the mother’s blood and bones during gestation. One of the cruelties of lead poisoning is that the body mistakes the rather large Pb atoms for calcium, and stores them in the dental enamel and skeletons of young children, where they have a half-life of 20 to 30 years.
‘Residual Effects’ appears in the September 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.