Many parents worry about what their toddlers are eating. Are they getting enough milk? Why won’t they eat vegetables?
But Jennifer Parham’s concerns are more troublesome. Her 2-year-old daughter Lazarya Grayson craves dirt.
Whenever her mother is distracted, Lazarya escapes the family’s West Central Spokane home and shoves a fistful of soil in her mouth. While the habit always concerned Parham, she never imagined that it would become life-threatening. After a routine visit to the doctor last week, Lazarya was rushed to the hospital with five times the safe level of lead in her blood.
The Spokane Regional Health District’s health officer called it the worst case of lead poisoning she has seen. Blood with more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter is considered toxic. Lazarya’s level was 51 micrograms.
Now Parham and her fiancé Louis Grayson II, say they and their four children are trapped in a rental home the couple believes likely poisoned their daughter. Parham had paid the rent the morning of Lazarya’s diagnosis, and when she asked her landlord for a refund so they could stay in a hotel until any lead problems were abated, he refused, Parham said. They can’t afford alternative housing without the refund, the couple says.
Although she can’t be sure until the soil is tested, Parham feels certain that the home is the only place Lazarya could have ingested lead since she isn’t in day care and spends “98 percent” of her time there.
“I don’t want to bring my child home from the hospital and put her in the same place that made her ill,” she said.
Health Officer Dr. Kim Thorburn said if tests show the lead source was at the home, which is common in lead-poisoning cases, “I wouldn’t want the child back in that environment until that environment was mitigated,” she said.
Lazarya has pica, an eating disorder that causes cravings for nonfood substances such as soil, chalk, wood and even light bulbs and needles. Doctors discovered last week that she’s also anemic, a condition that can be caused by a lack of iron. Parham suspects Lazarya was craving dirt as a source of iron, but she doesn’t yet know for sure.
What she does know is that her “spunky” and “strong-willed” daughter has endured a week of enemas and medicines used to clear out her digestive system. Doctors at Sacred Heart Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital are administering a drug that draws the lead out of Lazarya’s bones, where it likely has settled.
Shannon Meagher, program director of the city of Spokane’s housing and rehabilitation division, said this is the first case of lead poisoning since the city began its “Lead Safe Spokane” program a year ago. Under the program, landlords and homeowners can apply for loans to address lead problems. It tests homes for lead and assesses the lead’s risk to dwellers for free.
Keeping Lazarya from the dirt outside the family’s house, at 1904 W. Indiana Ave., is a struggle, Parham said.
“It’s always a fight from the porch to the car. I had to carry her like a football when I was pregnant,” said Parham, whose youngest child is 5 months old.
The early 1900s rental house has vinyl siding, but its window frames appear to be original. Paint on those frames is peeling above loose soil.
Parham said she suspects the lead is in the dirt and not a problem inside the house, since her other children, who don’t have the eating disorder, didn’t have high lead levels when tested last week. They have lived in the house since July 2004.
Parham said that with four children, including three under age 5, it’s difficult to watch Lazarya every minute. She remembers that on the application for the Women Infants and Children nutrition program, the question was asked: does your child eat dirt?
“Everybody said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Kids eat dirt. What are you going to do?’ ” Parham said.
Henson didn’t return phone messages from The Spokesman-Review on Monday and Tuesday seeking comment. Meagher said Henson hired a company to do the testing rather than utilizing Lead Safe Spokane’s free program.
The district is stressing the gravity of the situation to Henson, Thorburn said. As health officer, she has the power to declare a health emergency at the house and intervene with an officer if Henson doesn’t cooperate with testing and mitigation, if any is needed.
Thorburn also could set a deadline by which the testing and mitigation must be done. She said she hasn’t taken that step because Henson has hired a company to test for lead.
As for Lazarya, she has some speech delays and had been lethargic lately, but Parham doesn’t know what, if any, long-term effects there will be.
Her hospital gown hanging loosely over one shoulder, Lazarya played with her brothers and sister at Children’s Hospital on Monday night. Her father had finally convinced her to eat a piece of cake where he had hidden her medicine, not just the thick layer of frosting she gobbled down first.
Parham doesn’t know when her daughter will come home – or where their home will be. But being at the house this past week has been quiet without her.
“She is the heart of the family,” Parham said.
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