WASHINGTON - A two-year-old girl has been diagnosed with one of the worst cases of lead poisoning that’s been seen in the District in decades, according to doctors.
Her parents say the lead is in her bones and will have long lasting developmental and health effects. The Luster family was living in an apartment that they were paying for with D.C. housing vouchers, and their daughter, Heavenz Luster, was exposed to lead paint chips. The lead was found all around the apartment, as well as the front and back yards.
Now, the nonprofit firm representing the family wants to ring the alarm about why this could be a potential risk for many low income families.
“What is happening is they are rushing families in to end homelessness, but you are creating another issue because we are creating young African American children who are growing up with learning disabilities and behavioral problems,” said Crystal Luster, Heavenz mother, as she was talking about the lead paint that has caused severe health issues to her two-year-old daughter.
At first glance Heavenz looks like a normal toddler, but the scars on her legs from the shots she's had to endure tell a different story. Her severe lead poisoning started shortly after the family moved into a townhouse on Emerson Street in Northwest D.C.
“I would say three to four weeks after we moved in she made a drastic change, she wasn't sleeping at night,” Crystal said. Heavenz also stopped eating, regressed in her speech and even became violent with her siblings.
According to CDC guidelines, lead levels in the blood of children above five micrograms per deciliter of blood are a concern, and when Heavenz was diagnosed with lead poisoning she had 120 micrograms.
“One doctor said he hasn't seen this in thirty years. He was an older gentleman and said he hasn't seen a lead case in children like this in over 30 years,” explained Robin Luster, Heavenz father.
An EPA inspection after Heavenz's diagnosis revealed that lead paint chips and dust spread throughout their entire home, especially the rug and grass in the yards where Heavenz would sit and play.
“We called to make note that we had noticed some chipping paint. And in the bathroom, the bathroom tub was completely spray painted. Fixtures and everything. So that was one really major concern to me just at first glance. Like who spray paints a tub?” Crystal questioned.
“When we initially moved in we noticed the doors were painted over the chipping paint. The tub, the toilet wouldn’t flush,” Robin said. Even though the D.C. housing authority was required to have an inspection done, and the unit passed the inspection.
“One problem is the way the law is structured which requires only visual inspection so if, for example, a landlord paints and the next day adheres an inspection you can't see what the real problem is,” said Judith Sandalow, the director of the Children's Law Center.
Judith says the real problem is there's simply not enough affordable housing in D.C. “We have a child that for the rest of her life will need care and the costs for special education and health care is going to be in the tens of thousands if not millions. So we're being penny wise, and pound foolish if we don’t focus now on safe and affordable housing,” explained Judith.
A spokesperson with the city released a statement saying in part,"...the district has made progress - as evidenced by substantial reduction of childhood lead poisoning cases in D.C. - yet we continue to look for ways to protect the health of our residents and provide more quality housing for our most vulnerable communities."
The city also clarified that the townhouse initially failed inspection for several violations. But before the family moved in the dc housing authority had the landlord fix the problems. They claim nobody was aware of the lead issues when the luster's moved in.
The family is filing separate lawsuits against the city and their landlord.