NAPPANEE — At 7 years old, Lily Stoneburner is just like any other kid her age — she loves superheroes, watching Harry Potter movies and making beaded necklaces with her mom — but there are a few things that set her apart.
The week before her first birthday, Lily’s parents took her to get immunizations, and the doctor offered a free test to check lead levels in her blood. Just three days later, her mother received a phone call from the Elkhart County Health Department with some unexpected news.
“Lily had one of the highest levels of lead her blood they had ever seen,” Amber Stoneburner recalled.
The Stoneburners were renting a home in Goshen and had the health department test the house and the soil outside for signs of lead that could have contributed to Lily’s lead poisoning.
“They found that everything was pretty much covered in lead,” Stoneburner said. “The baseboards were covered in it, the walls had lead paint on them, all the windowsills, the carpet in the living room, the porch, and it was in all the woodwork. It was just everywhere.”
The health department determined that Lily had breathed in dust created by deteriorating lead-based paint in her home.
“She had inhaled enough that it sent her blood levels skyrocketing,” Stoneburner said.
Lily had been feeling sick a few months leading up to her diagnosis, her mother recalled.
“But it was nothing that we thought was totally out of the ordinary,” Stoneburner said. “We thought maybe she was going to be one of those babies that get sick off and on. Maybe she’s just going to be a late walker. Kids start doing things at different ages, so there was no reason in my mind to worry about those things.”
Dr. Daniel Nafziger, the county’s health officer, said symptoms of lead poisoning are not always obvious.
“A lot of the symptoms that children get are things like irritability or fatigue or loss of appetite or even abdominal pain, and there are so many other problems that can cause those symptoms that unless you test for lead, you’re not going to figure that out,” Nafziger said.
The health department tests children for lead poisoning, and since 1994, roughly 300 kids in Elkhart County have been identified with elevated levels of lead in their blood.
‘CONSTANTLY UNDER ATTACK’
The Stoneburners worked with their landlord in Goshen to remove as much lead from their home as possible, but there were still signs of lead dust in the house, and Lily’s health was not improving as much as her parents had hoped. After an exhausting search for a new home, the family ended up moving to Nappanee.
Six years later, Lily is still dealing with the effects of lead poisoning. The first-grader’s immune system weakened shortly after her diagnosis, her colon shut down and her growth was slow.
“Her body was constantly under attack,” Stoneburner said. “She’s always noticed that she’s been sick a lot more than other kids, and it’s prevented her from doing a lot of things other kids get to do.”
About three years ago, Lily was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, which amplified problems with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, insomnia and other complications. To keep it all under control, she has to take about 10 medications daily. She has 10 doctors in five cities and averages about four medical appointments each week.
LEAD HAZARD CONTROL IN ELKHART COUNTY
In recent years, Elkhart County has taken steps to remediate homes with lead-based paint with the help of grants from Indiana’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. The county’s lead hazard control program received $3 million in 2009, and the grant was renewed for almost $2.5 million last year to work on up to 140 homes in the county by May 2015. Carrie Brunson, the program’s director, said the county is on target to complete 55 homes by the end of this year.
Families that participate in the program must live in a home built before 1978, the year that lead-based paint was deemed illegal in the United States. At least one child age 6 or younger must live in the house or visit frequently. The program targets low-income families whose annual earnings are at least 80 percent below the area’s median income.
Stoneburner said she is relieved to know lead abatement programs are available in Elkhart County, especially for low-income residents.
“For us, we didn’t have the finances to do every single thing we could have done for Lily, and even though the landlord paid for a lot of the restorations that needed to be done, a lot of that still came out of our pocket too,” she said. “It’s good to know that people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to fix their homes can do that now, that it’s something attainable for people who may not have a huge income.”