Abatement by Any Other Name...

A Heights mother tries to get the lead out

For a few days, Belinda Crimmins figured she and her three-year-old son, Patrick, might be coming down with matching colds. First stuffy heads, then runny noses, then coughing, and finally a pair of uncharacteristic migraines. She took their temperatures to check for fever, but their temperatures were normal.

"And then I realized: They're sanding next door. That's probably lead paint."

It's the sort of mental leap only a mother would make, but it turned out to be true.

Contractors were in fact sanding the house next door, and had been, and subsequently would continue, all day, six days a week, for nearly six weeks. Workers with paper face masks and electric grinders attacked the single-story home on Harvard Street in the Heights and the garage apartment in back from beam to eave, wearing away old coats of armor-like paint (later tested and found to have a lead content of 8.9 percent by weight -- well over the .5 percent identified as dangerous by federal regulations) down to bare wood.

Belinda's husband, Ken Crimmins, shot video footage of clouds of paint dust wafting across the fence line that separates his neighbor's lot from his own. A grayish snowfall of paint chips and dust still rings the now freshly painted home's perimeter, piled up on bare earth, where there's nothing to stop it from seeping irretrievably into the soil, or across the property line, or into the street, at the next hard rain. And where there's also nothing to stop Patrick -- or the two young neighbor kids who live in the house bordering it on the other side, or any of the five other children on the block, or the three grandchildren who regularly visit relatives there -- from rooting around in the dirt and chewing on the reputedly sweet-tasting chips.

Nothing to stop them aside from the fact that Belinda and Ken Crimmins now choose to keep Patrick indoors, because they say the owner of the house refused to admit that the paint was lead-based, refused to acknowledge any liability even if it was, refused to recognize any wrongdoing on his part, and most importantly, refused to stop the grinding until all of the paint was off the house -- where it had been stable and relatively benign -- and on the ground, where it remains.

The bothersome thing is that according to current local, state and federal regulations, the homeowner who turned the paint into dust seems to be legally correct on every count but one: There's plenty of lead in the paint.

It's been 22 years since the federal Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of lead-based paints in the United States, and most people are by this late date aware that lead, even in modest doses, can contribute to profound developmental illnesses, including brain damage and death, when ingested by children under age six.

Many people also think that lead exposure is a problem that has been largely solved, with educational campaigns, free lead-reduction and lead-abatement programs, and strict lead disclosure policies targeted at homebuyers, low-income families and renters who might otherwise have limited access to means of preventing exposure.

Lead exposure is also an easily overlooked problem in Houston, where factors including boom-time construction and a general lack of interest in historic preservation add up to a relatively youthful housing stock.

But in neighborhoods such as the Heights, where the Crimmins family lives, many of the homes are bungalows and Victorian cottages originally built in the 1920s and '30s, and many of those are still sheathed in one or several layers of lead-based paint applied before the 1976 ban.

Now, as proximity to a newly bustling downtown drives up property values, more and more of these old Heights homes are being bought up by developers. Some tear down the old buildings and erect new structures. Others simply remodel or spruce up the existing home for rental or resale.

Many of the latter either partially or completely remove layers of old paint to make way for a fresh coat. That's what's happening at the house next door to the Crimminses. And what the Crimminses have found is that there is no agency -- neither federal, state, county nor city -- with direct oversight of problems such as theirs; that because of a loophole in state and federal regulations, there is in fact nothing illegal about the weeks of grinding toxic lead into airborne dust, and nothing illegal about leaving it on the ground. And that shy of filing a private civil suit against the homeowner and proving that the activity contaminated their property, they have little recourse aside from a bureaucratically oft-repeated mantra of "education."

When Belinda Crimmins realized what was in her air, she called every agency she could think of. She called the local air-quality control board and says she was told that if no one there actually saw the dust landing on the Crimminses' property, there was nothing they could do.

She called the city's HUD-funded Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program, and says she was told that if there were a child with a documentably dangerous level of lead in his blood, the Crimminses might qualify to have lead abatement done free, but if there were no such already-poisoned child, the program could do nothing. Belinda had Patrick's blood tested, but the test didn't reveal a dangerous level of lead.

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