Poisoned kids turned mom into lead activist

Tamara Rubin founded nonprofit Lead Safe America and works to increase public awareness about lead.
Tamara Rubin founded nonprofit Lead Safe America and works to increase public awareness about lead. Courtesy

Tamara Rubin is an activist born of tragedy.

Two of her four sons were brain damaged following lead poisoning. In the 10 years since the incident, she has educated herself about the dangers of lead in the environment.

Rubin founded nonprofit Lead Safe America and works to increase public awareness about lead.

The News Tribune interviewed her following the recent revelations of lead levels in Tacoma public schools.

Q: How did your sons get lead poisoning?

A: My boys (a 7-month-old and a 3-year-old) were poisoned in 2005 when we hired a painting contractor to paint the exterior of our home in (the Portland neighborhood of) Irvington.

He told us it was safe to stay in the house and not move out. He also told us he was going to use lead-safe practices.

Instead he used the most dangerous methods possible to remove the paint. He used a flame torch. My baby was 7 months old at the time and inhaled the fumes and was instantly poisoned.

Q: How did you find out?

A: They were immediately violently ill. It was an acute poisoning.

(But) our doctor didn’t think to test us for lead poisoning. It didn’t occur to me it was lead poisoning because I didn’t know anything about it.

Finally I told them, “You have to test for everything.”

Q: What ill effects have they suffered?

A: They had diarrhea, constipation alternately because it screws with the GI track. They had headaches. They became very irritable and not themselves.

Prior to the incident they were pretty upbeat kids. Even the baby. He had just started eating (solid) foods and then stopped.

Q: Is that when you figured it out?

A: Yes. The baby wasn’t crawling or walking. He was solely breast fed. So it wasn’t a food source or mobility source. The only source was the air.

And then we learned that even though the contractor said he was trained and certified, he did one of the most illegal things ever.

Q: Since you’ve become an activist for lead safety what have you learned?

A: The CDC’s (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) directive is focused on testing kids between 1 and 6. It discourages testing babies under 1.

There’s a (2009) CDC study that shows that one in three American children under the age of 18 today have had a blood level of 2.5 or higher in their lifetime.

But with my children — who have brain damage many years later — they are not considered part of the number because they no longer have elevated blood levels.

Q: How are your boys doing today?

A: Avi (11) had permanent brain damage and has a visual memory in the 4th percentile. He can’t read anywhere near grade level. AJ (13) has severe gastrointestinal issues and Tourette’s (syndrome) and a sensory processing disorder. Both kids are very musical though and good auditory learners.

Q: Here in Tacoma, the home of the Asarco smelter, it’s important that we don’t forget that a huge non-water source of lead exists: our soil. What are the most common sources of lead exposure harmful to kids?

A: Hands down, 90 percent of poisonings come from paint dust in the home. And that’s either from inside the home or outside in the soil.

And most of that is from friction surfaces: windows, doors, baseboard and trim where people bump into the wall or open and close a door.

Another one is keys. So many people give their babies keys. They have brass that can be heavily leaded. And dishes. Vintage Pyrex is basically coated in a lead enamel.

Q: How has all of this changed your life?

A: I founded Lead Safe America, I speak around the country, I’m making a documentary film.

To be an activist you need to approach it with positivity and solutions. You need to stay away from the anger. But obviously the parents in Flint are due their anger.

And I think the parents of Tacoma should be angry too.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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