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Lead poisoning: rejecting the stigma

Chevy Chase based Access Funding made millions of dollars from deals with victims of lead poisoning.

I was at the Green & Healthy Homes office in Baltimore when I saw a sheet of paper with LEAD POISONING FACT SHEET printed at the top in tall block letters. On the paper it said that if an adult has lead poisoning then their chances of dying are increased by 46 percent.

“What does this mean for me?” I looked at my friend David, but I was asking myself.

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“Where do they get these numbers?” David stared at the sheet.

I read and reread the words. I folded the paper and placed it in my purse.

I was tested and diagnosed with lead poisoning when I was 2 years old. I either picked the paint chips off the wall or licked residue off my fingers after crawling around on a dusty floor; I don’t know.

A Sun file photo shows detail of lead paint in a historic building.
A Sun file photo shows detail of lead paint in a historic building. (Jed Kirschbaum)

But I do remember when I was 10 years old, I went for some type of interview where I sat across from a white lady with her brunette hair pulled into a ponytail. She asked me questions from behind her desk.

“What are the five oceans on Earth?” she asked. Her head was turned toward me, but she kept her fingers on the keyboard of the computer.

“Pacific Ocean… Atlantic Ocean.” I looked at her. She looked back at me. I didn’t know the other oceans, and I didn’t recall learning them in school. So, I understood that if I failed this test or whatever it was that it was not any fault of my own.

When I got home, I took the fact sheet out of my purse. Under the words THE SCARY STATISTICS was written, “Any home built before 1978 may contain lead paint; 37.1 million homes contain lead paint.”

The home where I lived when I was 2 years old on the 1700 block of McCulloh Street, is still standing. Three short cement steps sit in front of a white door surrounded by red brick. White curtains hang in the windows and the flap of the black mailbox is open. The paint on the door of the house across the street is chipping like tree bark.

On the street there are broken-down and boarded up homes. Lead poisoning has been able to exist because of neglect.

But we still created a neighborhood from poisonous, dilapidated homes and schools that did not teach us enough to pass an IQ test.

Charleus scrapes lead paint off of a window frame at the Morgan State University Memorial Chapel Thursday as part of the Touching History program.
Charleus scrapes lead paint off of a window frame at the Morgan State University Memorial Chapel Thursday as part of the Touching History program.

We didn’t have a chance to choose between lead poisoning and poverty; we were given both.

“To me having lead poisoning was like having asthma, it just went along with being a black person, in the city and being poor,” my brother Michael said.

Everyone knew someone with lead poisoning.

I didn’t attach myself to the stigma. I swept the disease under the rug, and I didn’t speak about it.

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No one spoke about lead poisoning — not parents, teachers, news reporters, doctors.

In elementary school, we drank the water from fountains made with lead pipes. When the water was tested and the results showed a high level of lead, no one made noise about the poisoning of children.

I saw the diagnosis of lead poisoning as another way to oppress and label poor black people. And it gave us another reason to be helpless and ask for sympathy.

I met Baltimore based attorney David Albright while we were on a panel for lead poisoning. Mr. Albright called me a special case.

“Imagine the things Angel could have done if she didn’t have lead poisoning,” he said to the host.

Baltimore, MD--2/26/16-- 1035 E. Oliver Street with lead paint. Lead paint story (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)
Baltimore, MD--2/26/16-- 1035 E. Oliver Street with lead paint. Lead paint story (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

I was offended because he didn’t understand that it wasn’t just lead poisoning that could have affected me. Maybe it was growing up with neither my mother nor my father, being in classrooms with more than 30 children, catching two buses to school every morning, not being able to buy uniforms and new shoes or never knowing what I was going to eat for dinner. But I stayed quiet.

Mr. Albright went on to say that 99.9% of his clients are born into poverty. I thought about the brown faces of children whose life options are cut in half.

This came to my mind while I was reading the fact sheet that told me I could possibly die earlier then everyone else. But, everyone knows that people who live in poverty have a greater chance of dying young.

I separated myself from lead poisoning and poverty — the effects, the stereotypes, the labels.

I crumbled the paper and threw it in the trash.

Angel Wilson is a writer; her email is angelwilson391@gmail.com.

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