Jose Amaya leans back in an armchair as his three children race across the living room, chattering in a mixture of Spanish and English. Amaya, 34, remains mostly quiet, recalling the four years he spent living in a house that once contained toxic amounts of lead paint.
“Coming inside, you almost feel it, you know? It’s very strong,” Amaya said of the dust that caked the inside of his living room during lead paint removal that was completed in April.
Amaya discovered his house contained lead paint after he noticed his 2-year-old son, Danny, growing feverish and sleepy. Doctors confirmed Danny had lead poisoning. His illness was moderate, they said. But Amaya’s niece, who had been living with the family since her father’s death in September, had blood lead levels that were life-threatening.
Amaya was referred to city officials, who confirmed his house contained lead paint and sent a team to sand and refinish the 93-year-old Northeast home.
The Amaya family is one of hundreds in the District that have benefited from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development’s Lead Safe Washington Program, which received a $2.9 million federal grant this spring to continue the agency’s efforts to remove lead from low-income households.
To qualify for the program, an inspector must check for lead in the house, the total household income must be under $70,000, and at least one child younger than 6 must be living in or frequently visiting the home.
“[Lead poisoning] is particularly prevalent in kids as they’re growing up,” said Jane Vincent, the regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “If you think about the height of a little kid looking out the window, where’s their mouth? It’s right at windowsill level.”
Light or moderate exposure to lead, such as breathing in air that contains dust from lead paint, can cause developmental delays and learning disabilities in children. Greater exposure, such as a teething child putting paint chips in his mouth, has been known to lead to coma or even death, according to DHCD.
Even though the federal government banned the use of lead paint in 1978, there are still more than 300,000 houses in the District with lead paint, according to DHCD. Removal efforts have been hampered by the number of houses and the costs, according to the agency.
“It’s a costly, costly effort,” Vincent said. “But we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get these things done.”
The city will use the grant for refurbishing efforts, medical care for lead-poisoned children younger than 6, and programs to raise awareness of lead poisoning and its symptoms.
A 2009 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 16 percent of children from low-income households have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
“A lot of people just don’t think about the hazards of paint,” said John E. Hall, DHCD’s director. “You see paint on your house and you want to paint it a different color, you just go over it.” Public outreach, Hall said, has become a top concern of his department.
Lisha Quarles, 47, had her home tested in 2010 after hearing about the city’s free program and discovered soon after that her godchildren, who had been living with her, both had lead poisoning. “Some people are very private about their business,” Quarles said. “But [lead testing] is something that everyone should get into.”
To increase awareness, Hall and his team will distribute lead-testing kits to area families this year and hold more talks at District housing fairs and expos. Vincent said educating the public about the dangers of lead paint is crucial.
“You’re just buying your first home, there’s an awful lot to learn,” Vincent said.
Since April, doctors have monitored Amaya’s three children closely. His son and his niece are steadily recovering, Amaya said.
“I bought [the house] for my children so we’d be more comfortable,” he said. “It’s got a little yard for playing. Everything.”
For information about the Lead Safe Washington Program, go to www.dhcd.dc.gov/service/lead-safe-washington-program . Information about HUD and its grant programs is available at www.hud.gov.