Health & Wellness

These moms did everything right, yet their kids still got lead in their blood

Katie Funk thought she was doing everything she needed to do protect her newborn daughter from lead poisoning.

She and her husband had bought an older house in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill district and prepared carefully for their daughter’s birth.

“We had the house repainted, had the windows replaced,” said Funk, an antitrust attorney.

“It was an old house and had many layers of paint on the windowsills. That was one of the issues we were concerned about – lead paint. We were trying to do what we were supposed to do.”

Despite all their efforts, a blood test after Funk’s daughter was born showed the tiny infant had dangerously high blood lead levels. More tests showed the source was their home’s own tap water.

Related: Flint's water crisis isn't the first

It was 2004. Now, a dozen years later, Funk is sad to see the same thing happening to parents in Flint, Michigan.

Flint’s water has also been found to be loaded with lead and tests show high levels of the toxic metal in more than 40 children.

State health officials denied there was a problem until Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech engineering professor, found the tests that showed elevated levels of lead in Flint's water. Edwards also helped expose Washington D.C.’s problem and has become an activist who lends his expertise to helping communities battle a problem he says affects cities across the country.

Funk says she knows what parents are going through, and she’s sad that her experience doesn’t seem to have changed much.

In Flint, the water utility changed its source of water to the Flint River, and corrosive chemicals chewed up the insides of old pipes, allowing lead to leach into the water. In Washington a dozen years ago, it was a change in the chemicals used to disinfect water that did the same thing.

In both cases, water utilities failed to warn residents that their water might be delivering one of the most toxic metals known.

Related: EPA official quits amid Flint's water crisis

Three years later, Ruth Long was also living on Capitol Hill with two infant boys. Although she was studying public health, she had not heard about any issues with lead in Washington’s water supply.

“I didn’t know anything about it until our pediatrician said it was time to have their lead levels tested in 2007,” she said. They both tested high for lead when they got the blood tests that became standard in Washington, D.C. during the lead in water crisis.

“When that level came back high, I was freaking out,” said Long.

Long said investigations cleared her home’s water but she wasn’t sure the tests were accurate. Activists say the city’s water utility uses testing method that flush away any lead before it can be detected. “We definitely filtered the water and discouraged the boys from drinking water from the shower,” said Long, who now lives in Oakland, California with her sons.

Other tests showed the soil in her yard was high in lead and Long and her husband had it treated.

She’s mystified that the same thing has happened again in Flint.

“It seemed strange. Why isn’t anybody making the link? Is our memory really that short term?” she asked.

“I don’t know if it’s a crime but it’s definitely malfeasance,” Funk, who has since moved out of Washington to the suburb of Bethesda, said.

“People in Flint need to be vocal and they need to be mad and they need to stay mad. This is crazy. People have known about the dangers of lead since the fall of the Roman empire.”

Lead permanently damages nerves. Young children and babies in the womb can suffer irreversible brain damage if their blood levels get too high. There’s no safe level of lead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

In Funk’s case, she was the conduit for her daughter’s poisoning.

“When I was pregnant last year, I drank glass after glass of D.C. water, daily, for nine months just as my doctor suggested. Every evening, I took my pre-natal vitamin with a glass of D.C. water,” Funk said in testimony to the House Committee on Government Reform in 2004.

“Who would have thought this act, which should have been good for my child, could instead have been endangering her development?"

When Funk’s infant daughter had her blood tested, it had 15 micrograms of lead per liter. Children shouldn’t have levels of more than 5.

The city replaced the home’s water service line and the little girl’s blood levels dropped to normal. Funk says her daughter, now 12, seems normal in every way.

“We watched to see whether she crawled on time, did everything on time,” she said.

Her advice to parents in Flint: “Be mad and make sure people know how mad you are,” she advised.

“Hold the governor accountable. Hold the city accountable. Hold people accountable. It’s outrageous. The damage is pretty clear about the damage that lead can do to a developing brain.”

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