Editor's note: This is the first article of a two-part series covering lead contamination in Kansas City, Missouri. Part one features a mom whose two sons were poisoned by the lead found in the front yard of their south KCMO rental property in 2022. Part two highlights efforts by Kansas State University PhD students who are pioneering a cost-effective way to reduce lead's presence in soil.
When Heather Ross moved into a rental home in the Blue Hills neighborhood of south Kansas City, Missouri, in October 2020 to escape domestic violence, she described it as the moment she thought she found her freedom.
The feeling later faded when her two young sons tested positive for lead poisoning.
“My first year living there, I paid a year in advance,” Ross said. “We had escaped domestic violence. I paid a year in advance, so we came there and I thought that was my peace and safe place for me and my kids and it ended up being a place that hurt my kids. I felt like I failed them because I paid for a place that was killing my kids basically, making them sick daily, and my child is still suffering to this day due to that.”
Her sons, 5-year-old Vincent and 4-year-old Issac, started to experience several bouts — sometimes severe — of viral-related symptoms in February 2021. Because their symptoms — gastrointestinal distress, not being able to hold food down, and periods of insomnia, hyperactivity and exhaustion — were prevalent as the COVID-19 pandemic lingered, their illnesses were dismissed as viruses, even at doctor and ER visits.
"They were extremely sick, and it was during COVID time, so we, of course, assumed it was probably COVID-related,” Ross, who has a background in health care, said.
That’s until Ross enrolled Vincent and Issac in a Head Start program, an early childhood education program for low-income families where all children are required to be tested for lead poisoning, within Jackson County in the summer of 2022.
“They tested my babies for lead (while) getting ready for Head Start, and that’s when it came back that they had severely high levels of lead poisoning,” Ross said.
Those most vulnerable to lead poisoning are children under the age of 6, pregnant and nursing women, minorities and lower-income communities, and those who live in residencies built before 1978, the year lead-based paints were federally banned for residential use.
In Jackson County, where Ross, her sons and 55,647 other children under the age of 6 resided in 2020, there were 427 children known to have elevated lead blood levels that year, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (MDHSS). Jackson County’s childhood elevated blood lead rate exceeds Missouri’s state average, as does the county’s rate of housing stock built before 1980, per MDHSS.
In 2020, Clay County recorded 42 children and Cass County had 12 children with elevated lead blood levels. Both counties neighbor Jackson County and have significantly smaller populations, although, these counties test for childhood lead levels at rates below the state’s average, according to MDHSS.
Lead can affect almost every part of a child’s body, including the brain, nervous system, slowed growth and development, issues with hearing and speech, and learning and behavior problems — which Issac continues to deal with.
Ross believes the enrollment process for the Head Start saved her sons’ lives. Health care providers are required to test children for lead at 12 months and 24 months, but after that, testing is not regulated.
Issac's and Vincent's initial results showed their lead blood levels were at 35 μg/dL and 20 μg/dL, respectively, which far exceeds the CDC's elevated threshold of 3.5 μg/dL, when it's recommended children receive a follow-up from a doctor.
The health department investigated Ross’ rental property on July 13, 2022, according to an on-site preliminary lead assessment report.
In a letter addressed to Ross on July 21, 2022, Paula Macaitis, a public health specialist with the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department, confirmed lead was present in the soil in the front yard and on the front porch of Ross’ rental property at 5344 Brooklyn Avenue.
The health department wrote, “This is most likely the main source of lead exposure for him.”
While paint chips were found in the soil, the chips tested negative for lead, so the cause of the lead’s presence remains unknown.
Ross and Issac are high-risk — Issac was born with only one kidney and Ross has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure — so during the pandemic, the family tried to stay to themselves by playing outside in their own yard, which meant actively playing in the lead-contaminated soil.
“Literally, at that point, every toy that was out there, we left it out there to be trashed,” Ross said while talking about receiving the investigation results.
The health department letter reads: “We typically have the landlord arrange for lead repairs when we find issues. In this case, we will request some sort of covering and/or fencing off of the dirt, especially in the areas of greatest concerns.”
Ross alleges she waited three weeks for Kansas City Management Solutions, the property manager of 5344 Brooklyn Avenue, to address the lead contamination by covering the dirt or creating an elevated sandbox for her children to play in, but she said no one stopped by or returned her calls or emails.
KSHB 41 News reached out to Kansas City Management Solutions by phone and through their online contact form. We also reached out again a week later, only to find their voicemail inbox full. We have not received a response by the time of this publication.
So three weeks after the investigation results came back positive for lead and nothing was done to correct it, Ross moved out of the home she once thought was her saving grace.
“I searched and found a place, I came up with the money,” Ross said. “I called many places, but there were no resources to financially get us moved, or get things transferred, or even get us furniture.”
The move and ongoing health issues aren’t the only changes Ross has had to deal with following her sons' lead poisonings. Ross has since had to quit her job and go on disability to care for Issac and Vincent.
“Vincent, he still has the G.I. issues, but it shows up every so often, and when it shows up I'm like, ‘Hey, he's going to have to miss school because he literally has no control over it,’" Ross said.
On the other hand, Ross had to remove Issac from school completely.
"He was running out the side doors and into the parking lot of the school. It becomes an unsafe situation,” she said.
Since the lead poisoning, Issac has shown changes in his behavior, including emotional outbursts and ADHD. Ross says prior to the lead poisoning, Issac was a “relaxed, reserved and calm” child, and that his personality was the complete opposite of what he exhibits today.
While there is some uncertainty about whether lead poisoning and the onset of ADHD are correlated, behavioral issues and a decreased ability to pay attention are certainly linked to lead exposure, according to the CDC.
Since their results, Issac and Vincent have undergone monthly or bi-monthly blood tests, which show their levels are decreasing. Doctors can not say whether or not the boys will fully recover.
Ross said since the lead exposure and moving out of the contaminated property, she has lived in two homes, both of which she has gotten tested for lead. She suggests parents utilize the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department to test their homes for lead.
“My biggest thing is, parents, if you feel something is wrong with your child, follow your gut, follow your gut,” Ross said. “You know something is wrong, you know your child, you know their normal behavior, you know their normal reactions, follow that. The health department, you can call them and they will come out and they will test and they will do all that. I did not know that.”
The health department connected Ross with the department’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, which provides lead tests for those most at risk. The program also removes lead hazards if a child tests positive for lead.
The KCMO Health Department works with the Healthy Homes Program at Children’s Mercy to increase resources available to those in the bi-state area.
Ryan Allenbrand, the program manager for Healthy Homes, says the program is often called to homes contaminated with moisture, mold, allergens, or smoking, which is most commonly found in multi-family properties.
“So with lead, a lot of times families don’t even realize before the child was tested for lead that they had an issue with lead, whether it was in the home, or even the behavior of the child. So, they’re quite shocked compared with a family we might work with that has asthma, high-risk asthma, or a high-risk medical (condition) where they know that a child has this particular condition,” he said.
Allenbrand said there are some ways to mitigate the risk of lead exposure. One way is to check if your home was built prior to 1978. Other precautions can be made outside the house, like creating sandboxes for children to play in, building elevated garden beds for produce or taking shoes off before walking inside.
Some occupations are naturally subjected to an increased risk of lead exposure, like jobs in oil fields, gun ranges and battery plants, which differentiates the causes of lead poisoning in rural areas compared to urban settings, according to Allenbrand.
Another way the Healthy Homes Program works to fight lead poisoning in the Kansas City region is by partnering with health departments, both in Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. Because Children’s Mercy serves patients on both sides of the state line, the program will often refer those exposed to lead to their respective health department.
Anthony Lee Jr. is the lead hazard control program supervisor for the Wyandotte County Public Health Department, and he says Kansas City, Kansas, is at great risk of lead exposure due to its old housing stock.
“As we know, we have a lot of old housing stock here in Kansas City, Kansas, so we want to be able to help those families who are low-income and be able to help them have the resources and provide them with the work they need done on their homes, because I know it’s very hard for them financially to be able to get that work done,” he said.
Lee said in 2022 the department received $3.9 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for lead hazard remediation on 85 homes in KCK. The grant is for four years, and the department is using the funds to target communities east of Interstate 635, where old housing stock is most prevalent and where advocates say environmental racism is present.
According to Lee, 27% of homes built in Wyandotte County were built between 1950 and 1978, which is the second highest in the metro area.
“Wyandotte County is number one in the metro area for houses with peeling, chipping paint on the interior and exterior of the home at 24%, so it is really prevalent here and I don’t think folks realize that. So, it’s kind of our job to bring these resources like this HUD grant to our community,” Lee said.