Durham resident faces last hurdle in lead paint battle
Midori Brooks has a major hurdle to overcome before bringing the latest chapter in her decades-long battle to eradicate lead-based paint from her life to a close: she needs temporary housing for herself and eight family members.
In July 2022, NC Health News reported that Brooks, a Durham resident, was seeking help to deal with a lead issue at the home she shares with extended family, including three grandchildren and two nephews. The children’s ages range from 6 to 13 years old.
The Brooks family story reflects the local and state efforts to move beyond the seemingly ever-present shadow cast by lead contamination — in homes, schools and even public parks. Last summer, elevated lead levels were found in the soils of three of Durham’s city parks. Recently, Newsline reported that the city is closing 35 additional areas of five parks that are contaminated with lead.
At the state level, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported that as of Jan. 22, 793 child care facilities and 135 public schools have signed up for lead-in-water remediation under the Clean Water for Carolina Kids program, an initiative to remove contaminants such as lead and asbestos from child care centers and public schools across the country.
Last summer, Brooks contacted NC Health News and was excited to share that the city had found a contractor to do lead abatement work on the home that she’s lived in since 1995. The delay? The project didn’t move forward because she couldn’t find temporary housing.
"I thought about staying with my daughter, but it was too many of us to [move in] with [her]," Brooks said.
Brooks’ home, built in 1907, has porch columns covered with flaking lead-based paint; her kitchen has lead paint on the walls, and a hole in the kitchen’s ceiling reveals asbestos insulation.
Last month the Biden administration signaled that it is aware of the ongoing danger lead exposure poses to children and families. In an Environmental Protection Agency release, the administration announced that it’s “lowering recommended screening levels and strengthening guidance for investigating and cleaning up lead-contaminated soil in residential areas where children live and play.”
According to the release, the lead level for soil around residential dwellings is being lowered from 400 parts per million to 200 parts per million. In addition, for homes like Brooks’ “with multiple sources of lead exposure, EPA will generally use 100 ppm as the screening level.”
“Every family and child, regardless of their ZIP code, deserves to live without worrying about the lifelong health effects from exposure to lead pollution,” said Michael Regan, EPA administrator.
The case against lead
In 1978, lead-based paint was banned in the U.S. But houses built before then and that have not yet been remodeled likely contain lead paint.
Lead is a neurotoxin, and studies show that it is particularly harmful to young children and developing fetuses, as it can migrate from where it’s sequestered in the bones of a pregnant person and enter the bloodstream during pregnancy.
Decades of research have revealed that lead exposure can result in behavioral problems, lower IQs and reduced cognitive function. And as the data have piled up in recent years, the scientific and medical consensus has arrived at the conclusion that there’s no safe blood lead level.
In 1996, the EPA banned the use of leaded gasoline in automobiles. Further bans on lead-containing products have followed.
People exposed to lead as children can face life-long health and behavioral problems. Lead can also pose a threat to children outdoors. It can enter soil around a home when exterior lead-based paint ages, chips and sloughs off. Soil can become contaminated even when the lead is scraped off in an attempt to remove it from a home. But unless it’s carefully managed, all that lead accumulates.
Another way soil can become contaminated with lead is if the house or playground is near a highway established before 1996, when cars burned leaded gasoline. Exhaust fume particles from automobiles settled in the dirt over time, leaving lead residue in the soil.
Durham’s parks accumulated lead because the city dumped the residue from incinerating lead-tainted garbage over the course of decades. The extent of the soil contamination was revealed after a study by a Duke University student found elevated levels of lead in at least three parks.
In 2021, HUD released the American Healthy Homes Survey II Lead Findings. The survey, composed of data collected from March 2018 to July 2019, revealed that nearly 35 million U.S. homes still contained lead paint. Of that amount, low-income households had a higher rate of lead-based paint hazards than higher-income ones, and about 2.4 million homes had soil lead hazards.
In North Carolina in 2023, 147,688 children were tested for lead exposure. Of that number, 482 had blood lead levels registered at five micrograms per deciliter, and 147 had blood lead levels equal to or greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
N.C. DHHS county-level data shows that in 2019 in Durham County, 4,558 children, ages birth to 5 years, were tested, and 0.5 percent (or 23 children) had blood lead levels equal to or higher than five micrograms per deciliter.
A lingering problem
Brooks’ battle with lead traces back to 1995, when her oldest son, then 3 years old, was tested for lead exposure from the rental home they were living in. The test results revealed that his blood lead level was a whopping 28 micrograms per deciliter, Brooks told NC Health News in 2022. That number was well above the CDC’s guidance level at the time, which was 10 micrograms per deciliter. The standard has since been lowered to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.
Brooks said she thought she had rescued her family from the dangers of lead contamination when she moved from her apartment and bought her current home in 1995.
But she’s fighting the same battle.
Brooks told NC Health News that her oldest son has struggled in many areas in his life, likely as a result of his lead exposure. And her battle to keep another generation of her family safe from lead contamination has become a daunting mission for Brooks.
“It’s stressful. It’s very stressful, because not only am I dealing with [my son], I have his three kids,” she said. Brooks added: “All three of [my son’s children] have a learning disability.”
Brooks said her granddaughter, who is 9, has recently been tested for lead poisoning, and the family is awaiting the results.
Neighborhood preservation includes remediation
The Neighborhood Preservation program, an initiative developed by the City of Durham's Neighborhood Improvement Services Department, was formed to help low-income homeowners who qualify and live in their homes do repairs to their dwellings.
“We work closely with other nonprofits to facilitate the actual repairs,” said Clarence Harris, housing code administrator for Durham's Neighborhood Improvement Services Department.
Harris said that the lengthy process is one of the challenges, especially in Brooks’ case. Once a homeowner qualifies for help, the agency identifies a nonprofit partner that then finds a contractor to complete the work. Harris said the work the Brooks’ home needs is an example of why the process can take a while.
“Where we are in the process right now, a couple of things have occurred: major asbestos and lead tests were performed, and both have been identified as conditions that have to be remediated,” Harris said.
He added that it’s common in the city for residents living in older homes to experience issues similar to those of the Brooks family: “Many properties in the city constructed or renovated in the same era [as the Brooks’ home] may have incorporated similar construction materials [...] such as lead-based paint.”
Harris said they have a partner organization lined up to facilitate the work, but that the Brooks family will need to move out of the home during the remediation process. The agency does not have funds to support temporary housing.
The city’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department is working with Rebuilding Together of the Triangle, a local nonprofit, to remove the asbestos and lead from the Brooks’ home.
“One of the challenges we run into is lead and asbestos, which are sort of regulated separately, and so you have different contractors that are sort of vendors who are certified to manage each thing,” said Dan Sargent, Rebuilding’s executive director.
Sargent said that if all goes well, once the family has secured temporary housing and the work is scheduled, the remediation process should take four to six weeks.
Agencies in the area are working to find them temporary housing, but for now, Brooks is still waiting.
North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.