Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Toxic Home

When I got pregnant with M we lived in an apartment in the back of an 1832 Greek Revival mansion that was loaded with character and lead paint. Aside from the IQ-diminishing coatings on every surface, we knew we had to move out because it only had two small bedrooms, the second one being full of our extraneous junk, and we reached our front door by climbing a long, steep, dirty-ish staircase with sharp metal strips along each step. (I did not think about the danger of a kid falling out of especially high—because of high ceilings—second story windows, but that was because I had not lived with E and Z yet).

We looked around town for rentals, daydreamed over a mysterious estate house covered in vines (maybe we could be caretakers!) and even toured one house for sale. We gave up in despair after only a couple of rental tours—these houses were equally, if not more lead-paint infested than our current residence, they had nasty dirt basements and seemed to just radiate filth and toxins. I know it is generally not recommended to make major life decisions while under the influence of pregnancy hormones, but major life decision making we did. We toured some of C’s dad’s land in November, picked a site, designed our house over the winter (thinking only of how to stay cozy and warm—not how to enjoy the outdoors and avoid the bugs in summer) and broke ground in March.

M was born in May. We moved in in September of the following year, meaning M lived in the lead-paint apartment for 16 months—including all of those crawling, slobbering, hand-sucking months. I tried, for a while, to toss all his toys in the bathtub once a week and wet-mop the floors, but to be honest I’m not the greatest housekeeper on earth, and it all just kind of got away from me. He didn’t gnaw on the windowsills or anything, but it is really the dust—fine, fine particles of lead that settle on everything and find their way inside the mouths of mouthy toddlers—that is the issue with lead. We did have one disturbing incident when M dug a chunk of horsehair plaster out of the hallway wall and devoured it (seriously—this is the kid that wouldn’t eat any real food).

M’s blood lead level at 18 months was 7. The reference level is 10, so he was technically OK, but I’m of the school that no lead is good lead. I was happy to be in our new, clean, toxin-free house, with woodwork finished with natural waxes and oils, no lead in sight. But still, it’s hard to keep it that way.

Last Friday, as I was frantically trying to get ready for a weekend away—cooking, packing and attempting to clean all at the same time (nothing good comes from multi-tasking), I was sorting things out in the mudroom, noticed M’s gloves felt damp and handed them to E, telling him, “go put these on the tile in front of the woodstove.” Don’t ask me why I expected my not especially verbal two-year-old to comprehend the difference between “in front of” and “on top of,” but about 10 minutes later I noticed a kind of singe-ey smell and walked into the livingroom to see M’s gloves melting into two puddles on top of the stove. I snatched what was left of the gloves off the stove, threw them out the front door and tried scraping the remains of nylon, foam and vinyl (I’m sure it must have been vinyl) off the top of the stove with wood chips and a stainless steal scrubbie. I opened up a living room window and the front door and turned on the bathroom fan upstairs, hoping to vent the dioxin and god knows what other chemicals out into the atmosphere.

On a number of occasions, we have broken compact fluorescent bulbs in the house. Once one broke as C was changing the bulb in the kids’ room—while I was putting them to bed (fortunately all of the pieces stayed contained in the glass light cover). The other time, M knocked over a lamp, which I stood back up without noticing the bulb had broken until the next morning. I was able to convince C to not use the vacuum to clean it up, but he ignored me when I said to use something disposable, and instead used the mop, so I had to throw away the mop head. An agency in Maine has just created new guidelines for cleaning up fluorescent bulbs when they break. I wish I had had this information when the other breaks occurred (I think we still have a basement full of broken bulb parts), but I will make a copy of it to take home, so we can maintain that illusion of a toxic-free home.

P.S. Yesterday M wore some really thick fleece mittens that he has tearfully refused to wear all winter because he only likes gloves (which is why I had to buy the now-melted crappy Old Navy gloves). When he got home, he said, “How come these mittens stay dry on the inside?” Aaargh!!!


  1. You know, they don't even DO lead tests here in the UK? So, I am so anxious about the Victorian house my kids have been living in. I feel your pain -- we just cannot protect them from everything.

  2. that message about CFLs & mercury vapor is not out there to the general public. all i've heard is that they're good, good, good, save energy, replace all your bulbs.

    thanks for this info. i don't think we've broken one yet but we are bound to, especially now that i know about this vapor...


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