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Silent threat

Anthony and Carolyn Hunt have lived in three consecutive 1920s-era homes in three different communities. In their most recent move to Elkhart, said Anthony, the only difference is that this time they have children. And the family didn't know the hidden dangers older homes can hold. "Now it's cost us the poisoning of our child," Anthony said. The Hunts' youngest son Silas, just under 2 years old,

Posted on Sepa. 24, 2007 at 1:00 a.m.

ELKHART -- Anthony and Carolyn Hunt have lived in three consecutive 1920s-era homes in three different communities.

In their most recent move to Elkhart, said Anthony, the only difference is that this time they have children.

And the family didn't know the hidden dangers older homes can hold.

"Now it's cost us the poisoning of our child," Anthony said.

The Hunts' youngest son Silas, just under 2 years old, has lead poisoning -- caused by high levels of lead found throughout their quaint Jackson Boulevard home. Their two older sons, 4-year-old Killian and Zachariah, age 6, also show elevated levels of lead in the blood, but not to the same extent as Silas.

The boys were tested when Carolyn took Silas to the Elkhart County Health Department for booster shots in January. The county offered the lead test, and she accepted.

The county gave the Hunts a list of things that could help reduce lead in the home -- including wiping down walls with a dish soap containing phosphates to neutralize the lead -- but Silas' blood lead levels haven't dropped.

Built much before 1978 -- when the federal government banned the use of lead-based paint in homes -- lead paint is found on every window trim, and exterior doorways in the Hunt's house. It also showed up on the front and back porch, and mud room. It's even in the soil around the home.

"Basically it is everywhere we let our children play," Anthony said.

Lead can be ingested through swallowing lead dust -- often caused by the friction of opening and closing windows and doors, or by eating soil or paint chips containing lead.

Now the Hunts face not only costly home renovations, but fear their decision to purchase a historic home will harm their children down the road.

"Certainly if we'd known about the possibility when house shopping, we would have shopped smarter," Carolyn said.

The mom says right now she worries "about every little nick of paint" putting more lead into the home.

Though most children with lead poisoning have no symptoms, it can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, impaired hearing and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and even death.

"I've discovered a new passion," Anthony said. "We have to make sure people are aware."

In the midst of nationwide attention on toy recalls, lead paint found in older homes remains the number source of lead poisoning in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Elkhart alone, 77 percent of the housing stock has potential for containing lead-based paint because it was built prior to 1978, said Crystal Welsh, Elkhart's community development manager.

Lead-abatement renovations can be costly. The Hunts have heard estimates of at least $25,000, not including window replacement. Windows can typically run $400 to $600 apiece -- on the high end, that's an additional $14,000.

With the expense and time needed to make the renovations, it will be almost a year since Silas was diagnosed before the Hunts' home is "lead-safe," said Carolyn.

Countywide, resources for family's facing such hefty repairs are limited.

At the county level, the only services available come from the Elkhart County Health Department -- which works with a family to evaluate the child and the home. The department is managing 70 cases of lead-poisoned children.

But since the program is unfunded, said John Hulewicz, environmental health supervisor, financial assistance isn't offered. The health department can only make recommendations for lead-safe ways to remodel or refurbish the home.

Goshen and Elkhart offer owner-occupied rehab programs with zero or low-interest loans to help with renovations. Because both are funded by Community Development Block Grant dollars -- federal money -- income restrictions apply. In Elkhart, a family of four must make between $29,650 and $47,450 annually to receive such a loan.

Assistance for a family above that income threshold, such as the Hunts, is hard to come by. Costs of moving the family and buying a new home left the Hunts with little reserves to fall back on.

Recognizing the danger in the Hunts' home for their three boys, the city of Elkhart recently stepped in -- offering to lend up to $20,000 in renovation work from a revolving loan fund that doesn't carry have the same federal restrictions CDBG or Housing Urban Development money carry, said Crystal Welsh, community development manager.

The Hunts' situation, said Welsh, is the first time someone outside the city rehab program has asked for help with lead abatement.

"We're trying to figure out a permanent funding mechanism that doesn't come from federal funds and limits us to certain incomes," Welsh said. "We're looking to the local community for support."

One thing being considered is a window-donation program, said Krystal Anderson in Elkhart's planning department.

"We're hopeful area church congregations might be interested in purchasing one window," she said. "We'd like to see what kind of community effort we can generate to help this family with a poisoned toddler."

Elkhart also hopes to partner with the county and local agencies to turn a city-owned house into a lead-safe home. Families whose homes are undergoing renovations then would have a safe environment to stay in without having to go to a hotel.

The city had contemplated using CDBG funds, but because the home would be open to all Elkhart County residents, the city must find other funding sources. Planning is still in the early stages, but Welsh said Elkhart has "officially started higher-level conversations" on the matter.

Funding would be needed to renovate and furnish the home and to cover ongoing expenses such as utilities and yard maintenance.

Another partnership effort could bring $2.7 million to fund education and lead-abatement renovations for homeowners and landlords in the county, Elkhart and Goshen, said Kris Krueger, county grants administrator.

The county and its Lead Task Force -- made up of representatives from Elkhart, Goshen, the health department and a number of agencies -- applied for a grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The county should hear whether it's received that grant early in 2008.

Contact Bridget Levitz at blevitz@etruth.com.




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