A Portage woman blames her landlord for failing to warn her of environmental hazards leading to lead poisoning of her infant.
Brittany Suchomel published an letter to the editor in the Dec. 18 Portage Daily Register stating her case and asking for information on what someone with limited resources can do, feeling compelled to move for the sake of her 11-month-old son’s health.
She said she took her son in for a regular checkup a few weeks ago, after which the doctor suggested some additional blood testing. The results confirmed her son had elevated lead levels in his blood and would need to come in for another blood draw and more precise reading. After that had been done and analysis came back from the Mayo Clinic, the readings were bad news.
The level in blood is measured in micrograms per deciliter.
“It showed us that it was a level 15 (mcg/dL),” said Suchomel. “And then pretty much after that, I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off.”
Parents of children with blood lead concentration testing below 10 mcg/dL may or may not have been informed of the results prior to 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control, when the agency lowered the threshold to 5 mcg/dL.
Since January, Columbia County has seen 515 children under the age of 6 added to the Wisconsin Blood Lead Registry, according to Columbia County Health and Human Services Health Officer Susan Lorenz, with approximately 1 percent testing at or above 5 mcg/dL.
Lorenz would not confirm whether Suchomel had a case with the county or had contacted the department, citing federal health privacy rules.
The property was approved for Suchomel, who is renting with the assistance of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. Suchomel said that she was confused at not receiving any warning beforehand.
The 28-year-old lived in the Madison area for much of her life before moving to Portage about five years ago. She most recently lived on James Street, before moving to the West Marion Street home in the end of June.
“In order for Section 8 to pass this — there was paint chipping — and so while I was fixing up this place, there were paint particles everywhere and after a while my son is inhaling — pretty much lead,” Suchomel said. “One thing I just don’t understand is that if this house was built in 1960, why, as a landlord you haven’t had this house tested for lead.”
Suchomel said a Columbia County social worker came to the property to run some tests and found lead paint throughout the house, specifically in a peach hue showing through the walls on the main floor where Suchomel had already painted over.
WHEDA sent a letter Tuesday to the owner and occupant informing them that the lead paint had to be mitigated or Suchomel would have to move out because the hazard to her children. The letter sets a deadline of 30 days.
The ultimatum, she said, put the obligation on her to see the issue solved or move out.
Richard Lynn is the landlord of the property on West Marion Street, which was purchased at auction for $45,000 by Hui Chen on Nov. 23, 2016. Chen’s address is listed as 9525 Blue Heron Drive, Middleton, which is shared by Lynn, Lynn Properties, and Lynn Holdings.
“That’s my son,” Lynn said. “He doesn’t handle the property; I do. It’s just an investment property for his college.
“Apparently WHEDA or whoever it is that handles that is supposed to have a letter out, but I haven’t gotten that yet.”
While there are ordinances and regulations in place, most of the responsibility for notification and lead abatement falls on the residence owner and the resident.
“The city does not have ordinances or policies on lead abatement,” Portage City Administrator Shawn Murphy said. “We have worked with landlords on exterior lead paint abatement in the past, but we have not encountered interior lead contamination issues.”
State and federal law, he said, dictates that any building erected before 1978 should be presumed to contain lead paint. Federal law requires home sellers and landlords to disclose all information about lead in a house or apartment.
WHEDA spokesman Kevin Fischer said the U.S. Department of Urban Development requires that lead-based paint status be disclosed prior inspection of the unit.
“Our agents inspect to HUD’s Housing Quality Standards which are to a decent, safe and sanitary threshold,” Fischer said. “Neither WHEDA, nor our agents, are lead inspectors and no testing is required or done before passing a unit.”
In the event of lead hazards in a home, advice from state and county health authorities advise vigilance in housecleaning, putting furniture against flaking window sills and keeping small children from getting into any hazardous areas.
Suchomel said she sweeps every day before work and washes her son about three times a day, with the bright side being that he has fun with foamy soap.
“It’s just not fair for my son because I can’t go back on this, I can’t change anything, and if I knew this had lead in it I would have rather slept in a cardboard box,” said Suchomel. “That’s what kills me as a mother — that my son is lying over there and I know that poison is just running through his body.”