Getting the Lead Out

ONE DAY IN March a crew in masks and full-body suits showed up at Candy Arnold's townhome in the Glendale public housing projects--they would eventually visit all 184 units--to replace some windows in her basement. The old ones were covered in lead-based paint, she had been warned, and had to be removed. The work only took about two hours, but according to Arnold, workers left debris and dusty plastic tarps behind for almost a week and a half.

She soon noticed that her daughter and son weren't feeling too well. "We started getting sick," she says. "Nausea, diarrhea, and throwing up." The crew told her her basement was safe, Arnold remembers, but "the floor was black from what they did. I swept it up--filled about a half garbage bag full--and then I mopped it over 30 times.
I wore rubber gloves and a handkerchief over my mouth because you couldn't be down there for more than 10 minutes without getting sick."

Health officials and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority maintain that the lead levels in the southeast Minneapolis family complex aren't high enough to cause the reported illnesses. A few units were tested by the Minneapolis Health Department about a month after the abatement and "normal" levels were found. Yet other residents have complained of illness too, including asthma attacks, drowsiness, and headaches. Says Elizabeth Sweet, who works with the Glendale Resident Management Corporation (RMC): "During the modernization a lot of people had vomiting and headaches and diarrhea. I know of at least four families who went to the hospital. Interestingly enough the symptoms from lead exposure are headaches, vomiting, lack of appetite and irritability."

With this in mind, the RMC started making calls. Residents reported that there had been testing done by the abatement contractors at the time the windows were removed, so they called the MPHA for the results. According to Sweet, they were told they couldn't have them. Bill Paterson, spokesperson for the MPHA, says "every single unit on both state and HUD guidelines has passed," but declined to turn over anything more specific.

When the RMC pressed the agency, it received a faxed copy of a document that every Glendale resident reportedly had been required to sign--a waiver releasing the MPHA from any liability "resulting from the condition of this unit with respect to lead contamination." When the RMC started asking around, Sweet says, "We started finding that people had signed it. Even the people living here already had to sign it to get recertified." Paterson claims not to know anything about the form or for how long it's been used.

One local attorney who has worked on six or seven lead cases against the MPHA in recent years speculates that the "lease addendum" is an attempt at staving off future suits: "If a mother signs the waiver and the family continues to stay there and there is a suit against them, they can say that the mom knew about the lead and chose to stay there and endanger her children." Gerry Kaluzny, an attorney who works on lead cases for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, says he has yet to see a similar form used in the private sector and questions its legality. "There are state statutes that provide for a property to be in reasonable repair," he says. "You can't just get people to sign contracts to get around laws intended for the public safety."

The RMC finally goaded the city's health department into coming out and doing some sampling in April--almost a month after the abatement. The department reported low levels: between 25 and 378 micrograms per square foot in the units they tested. One official characterizes anything under 1,000 as "normal."

But attorney Fred Jacobberger, who met with the RMC about the possibility of a legal action, isn't so quick to say all is OK. "Is nine units out of 180 a good sample? I don't know. Was it already cleaned up by the time they tested? If they were creating a lot of lead debris by pulling windows out, and they later cleaned it up, the tests may not have accurately demonstrated the lead levels when kids were playing in there. Often the most accurate barometer is the kid who is tested.
I would test every kid there up to 6 years old."

 
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