When Melissa Favara and her family moved into an older home in the Mississippi neighborhood, she didn't consider that it could be tainted with lead.
"I always thought lead poisoning was something that happened on the East Coast, that it was a problem in places like Philadelphia," Favara told The Skanner. "I didn't realize it happened in Portland."
It wasn't until Favara's daughter Ramona was 8 months old, that she called the Josiah Hill Clinic, which offers free lead testing for pregnant women, children and nursing mothers. Favara's test showed both she and her daughter had been exposed to lead. Worse, baby Ramona's level was worryingly high.
"Ramona tested at level 6," Favara says. "The federal government gets worried at level 10, but my daughter wasn't even crawling yet and she was more than half way there. She was getting close to the red zone so I was terrified."
Staff at the Josiah Hill clinic deal with lead issues every day and they knew how to help, Favara says.
"The clinic didn't panic or encourage me to panic, but they gave me a lot of information on how to improve Ramona's health: everything from what kind of dietary choices to make to safe cleaning practices. They took my concerns seriously, but they helped me calm down."
Favara learned that infants' bodies absorb lead more easily than adults, but that increasing the amount of Vitamin C, calcium and iron in their diets can help protect them.
Favara didn't have an extra $100,000 lying around to hire a specialist to remove all the lead from her home. What she could do was to paint over the old paint. She also learned that it's better to damp mop than to sweep, because sweeping stirs up the suspect dust.
"We've done a lot of just covering up and trying to seal the paint and carpet the floors," she said. They're not permanent solutions, but they help. "We have to live with respect for the lead so we have windows that we'll never open again."
Lead poisoning of children is the reason the Josiah Hill Clinic exists. The nonprofit was set up by the late Josiah Hill, a physicians' assistant and community advocate, because so many children are not tested. As the executive director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, Hill made waves when he argued that, contrary to standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, there is no safe threshold for childhood lead exposure.
Today the clinic offers lead testing and advice through its mobile testing service, and it has broadened its mission to include asthma and preventative environmental health services.
"Statewide the statistics show that one in every 50 children are poisoned each year," said Erin Mcnally the clinic's executive director. "We find that about one in every 30 children we test have levels that need to be addressed."
McNally notes that fewer than 5 percent of children in Oregon are tested for lead. The danger exists because of lead-based paint, used in U.S. homes until it was banned in the 1970s, and recently found to be a problem in some childrens' toys imported from China. Problems associated with lead toxicity include lowered intelligence. Remodeling older homes can pose particular risks because when lead paint and other toxins are uncovered they can be released into the home.
Asthma and other problems related to environmental toxins have risen sharply in recent years. In response, the Josiah Hill Clinic decided to work with families to identify risks in and around their homes.
"We have expanded our focus to going through the home with people and identifying problems such as what kind of hazardous chemicals people are using, or whether mould is causing a health problem," McNally said.
Information gathered by the clinic has led to calls for changes to the city's housing code. McNally said it is the start of an environmental discussion that is long overdue.
"The key is to start thinking about this and giving it our attention," she said.
As for baby Ramona, her blood lead levels have dropped, Favara says.
"We've been back three different times and her score has been steadily coming down. Now it's down by half so I feel that the things we learned through the clinic have allowed us to make important changes. They've been terrific."
Favara is now volunteering for the clinic.