Toxic Shack Syndrome

SOLEENA TOR, HER parents, and her six siblings share a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood. The apartment building is home to four other families like the Tors, Cambodian immigrants who subsist on meager incomes and speak little or no English. The Tors have less than $400 a month to spend on rent, as is grimly apparent by their home. Like many decaying urban buildings, the property is owned by an absentee landlord and has no on-site manager. In addition to the multitude of roaches, the apartment's walls and hallways have holes, the carpeting is moldy, and paint is peeling everywhere.

And the paint, as is true of so many older, urban buildings, contains lead. On a recent visit to the local WIC office, a savvy caseworker noticed Soleena was unusually cranky and out of sorts--something they apparently had seen in other children with lead poisoning. When doctors X-rayed the little girl, they found her stomach full of paint chips and the level of the toxin in her blood measured 92 micrograms per deciliter. A reading of 100 usually results in a coma or death; last year, a 3-year-old boy made medical history in Minnesota for surviving a lead level of 99.

Never mind that lead-based paint was banned in the mid-'50s, according to environmental health experts, more than 200 people in Minneapolis and St. Paul test positive for lead toxicity each year. The average amount of lead in victims' bloodstreams is about 30 micrograms. Side effects vary with the level and the length of exposure, and can range from learning disabilities to central nervous system damage and even death.

The vast majority of victims are impoverished children like Soleena Tor. "Cases like these are really about environmental racism," says Allysen Hoberg, a caseworker for ClearCorps, a nonprofit lead-reduction program. According to Hoberg, state Rep. Karen Clark (DFL-Minneapolis) has spent years unsuccessfully trying to shepherd legislation to create a state-funded lead-reduction task force. She and others complain that Carlson has rejected even minimal funding for what are known as "swab teams." "We'd do things like stabilize paint, clean surfaces, replace window wells, etc.," explains Phillips lead activist Ed Pesche, who says teams would concentrate on low-income houses in urban areas--particularly those inhabited by children or pregnant women. "It would be a low-cost way of preventing lead poisoning."

This year, Carlson finally signed an anti-lead bill into law. Hoberg maintains that Carlson signed the law only because lead problems were uncovered last year in St. Louis Park: "Surprise, the measure passes," she complains. For years, the median amount of lead in the soil in Phillips has hovered around 800 parts per million and has gone as high as 4,000. Meanwhile, St. Louis Park's average soil level is 500 parts per million, and the highest reading taken from a child's blood there is 17. Worse, adds Pesche, what finally passed wasn't even a lead-abatement fund. Instead of funding cleanup crews, Carlson signed off on a commission to study possible remedies.

There's no law forcing landlords to rid their properties of lead, in large part because cleanup is costly. "Some landlords don't have the money to invest, particularly in the inner-city," says Pesche, adding that new federal funding could ease the cash crunch. Locally, the MCDA has a deferred-loan program that allows landlords or homeowners to borrow up to $5,000 for lead removal. "The city has become more flexible. They do everything in their power to avoid condemnation."

Rather than return Soleena to the place that poisoned her, Hoberg arranged for the family to move into a safe house run by the Phillips Lead Safety Net program. In addition, several charities have donated food and furniture, and Hoberg says that Soleena is recovering nicely. Although no one else in Soleena's family has tested positive for lead, Hoberg says she can't attest to the health of the other tenants. In the meantime, the city is deciding how best to deal with the contaminated paint and has ordered the landlord to hire an exterminator and repair the holes in the walls.

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