CARVILLE, Louisiana (Reuters) - In August 2016, a National Guardsman’s year-old daughter tested high for lead exposure while living at the military post here, amid pecan groves near the Mississippi River.
Emily Price had a blood lead level slightly above the 5 microgram-per-deciliter threshold for intervention set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She was lethargic and had hearing problems, said her mother, Coryn Price. Emily often refused food but would sometimes eat things off the floor. All were possible symptoms of lead poisoning, a preventable affliction that can damage children for life.
Deteriorating paint in old homes is the most common source of lead exposure, and three months earlier, the Prices had moved into a spacious duplex built in 1934. Price said she expressed concern to a post commander about paint chipping from the windowsill in Emily’s room.
“I wanted to know where the lead was coming from and stop it,” she said.
The Guard promptly had the house tested while the Prices stayed in a hotel and soon provided the family a report from a private laboratory. It showed a faux leather couch the Prices owned had tested high for the heavy metal. In October 2016, Guard staff told the family the couch was the likely culprit and they should remove it immediately, Price recalled.
The Guard, Reuters has learned, didn’t act on other crucial information: Testing it ordered from another lab in September 2016 had indicated additional lead hazards at the home. Paint chips gathered near windows contained up to 16.5 percent lead by weight – 33 times the federal hazard level for a deteriorating home paint surface, a lab report shows.
Unaware of those perils, the Prices removed the couch, and, assuming their baby was now safe, continued living in the house.
A child’s lead levels usually drop quickly after exposure ends. But four months after the couch was removed, in February 2017, Emily’s levels had skyrocketed to 32.5 micrograms per deciliter, more than six times the CDC’s action threshold, medical records show.
A state health department inspection eventually confirmed Coryn Price’s earlier suspicions: Emily’s room and three other spots harbored toxic levels of leaded dust. The yard was contaminated, too.
Only then, more than nine months after Emily first tested high, Price said, did the family learn of the home’s hazards. The Guard also had failed to disclose the potential presence of lead-based paint to the Prices in leasing documents, as federal law requires landlords to do for pre-1978 housing.
“It’s depressing for a government agency to show such callous disregard for people’s welfare,” said Patrick MacRoy, a former lead poisoning prevention program director in Chicago. “The right thing to do is inform occupants about all testing results, keep children away from any lead paint hazard found, and repair it promptly.”
The Price family’s ordeal is among many Reuters has documented in an examination of health hazards in military housing across the United States. In August, the news agency reported here that its own lead testing had found poisoning hazards in privatized Army housing on several bases, and more than 1,050 small children tested high for lead at Army base hospitals or clinics. The results often weren’t being reported to state health authorities as required, heightening children’s risk of continued exposure.
In response to that report, the U.S. Army crafted a plan here to test 40,000 older homes for lead across the country and remove families from those found to be unsafe. The Army has held meetings on bases worldwide to address residents’ concerns, and has vowed to comply with state health-reporting laws.
Asked about the case of Emily Price, the Louisiana National Guard provided evolving and contradictory accounts over several months.
The Guard’s spokesman, Colonel Ed Bush, initially told Reuters that Emily’s exposure hadn’t come from the military post home, speculating she could have been exposed “at Grandma’s house or daycare.” Bush said the Price family wasn’t living in the duplex when Emily’s lead levels spiked. He said the military did everything possible to protect the family, putting them up in a “lead free” hotel on post for nine months “at a much higher cost to the Guard” – $2,400 a month.
Told later that Reuters had photographs proving Emily and her family were living in the duplex all those months, Bush blamed the Prices, saying they had been ordered by the post commander to leave the home.
“Why would they go back to the duplex if they had concerns?” Bush asked.
He later said the post’s commanders hadn’t closely tracked the family’s whereabouts. “No one specifically ‘kept tabs’ on them,” Bush wrote in an email. “It was assumed they would stay in the hotel.”
Asked why the home hadn’t been repaired earlier, Bush said the Guard had been unsure how to interpret the September 2016 lab results from its own testing, considering them “inconclusive.”
“This was all very new,” Bush said, adding that the post hadn’t dealt with other lead exposure incidents.
Coryn Price says her family was never told to stay out of the duplex, where they continued to pay rent. The Prices lived a block away from the post’s commander, Colonel John Angelloz. “Everyone knew where we lived” in the little community, she said. “Nobody told us the duplex wasn’t safe.”
Colonel Angelloz declined to comment.
Bush acknowledged one failure: The Guard had not been disclosing the potential presence of lead-based paint to tenants in its older housing. It is now providing the disclosures, he said.
In response to inquiries from Reuters, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would look into the Louisiana Guard’s compliance with the disclosure rule. In the past, the EPA has fined here other military housing operators for lead disclosure lapses.
Reuters first contacted Coryn Price last year after hearing about her daughter’s poisoning. For months, the mother of two was reluctant to talk. When Price learned of the Guard’s claim that it had moved Emily out of harm’s way, she decided to speak out.
“It didn’t happen that way,” she said.
Recently, Coryn shared her decision with other military spouses on a Facebook group. “My husband is terrified it’s going to hurt his career. But I can’t sit back and say nothing,” she wrote. “My daughter doesn’t have a voice of her own.”
Coryn’s husband, Sergeant Peter L. Price, declined to meet with a reporter or answer questions for this article. He urged her not to speak with the media, she said. He now works as a federal arms technician on another Guard post in Louisiana. The family has moved to a home of their own off post.
The U.S. National Guard operates in all 50 states and several territories. Most of its approximately 450,000 members are part-time reserve soldiers and airmen, so-called weekend warriors, who can be called into active duty by their state or the federal government. Others work for the Guard full-time. Some Guard installations include family housing.
The Louisiana Military Department operates homes at the Gillis W. Long National Guard Center here. The site is a former leprosy colony, where researchers found an effective treatment for the disfiguring disease in the 1940s. Since the 1990s, the Louisiana Guard has used the site for training, and some 220 people – Guard personnel and their families – live in its trailers and houses, including older structures built when leaded paint was widely used.
Coryn Price, 28 years old, grew up at Gillis Long. Her father, a sergeant, was posted at the base, and she lived there from the age of 14 until moving out earlier this year. She met her husband on post when he was serving as a night-shift supervisor in the military police. They married in 2013, shortly after he volunteered for deployment in Afghanistan, and a week before he shipped out. The couple has two daughters, Emily, 3, and Lizzie, 4.
Sergeant Price, 47, enlisted in the Louisiana Guard in 2008 after earlier working in wine sales in California. In Afghanistan, he served with the 1084th Transportation Company, providing truck escorts, often through dangerous territory. In May 2013, a fellow Louisiana Guardsman was killed in a vehicle near Price’s when their convoy came under enemy fire.
Coryn, now finishing a degree in psychology at Louisiana State University, became pregnant with Emily after her husband returned in 2014. He only shared his memories of the convoy attack with her years later. “It’s one of those things he talks about with people who know what it’s like” to deploy, she said.
The Prices were thrilled to move into the duplex in May 2016. They had been living in one of about 50 trailers on the post, initially meant to house families displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The cramped trailers sit in a row behind a cemetery for former leprosy patients.
Coryn was alarmed by Emily’s first high lead test, and determined to find the source of her exposure. After she told command about the result, in September 2016, Guard staff collected samples at the duplex, a playground, and the Prices’ former trailer – from items such as furniture and toys, as well as paint, soil, dust and water. The household items were analyzed by a lab in Illinois, the paint and other samples in Georgia.
The next month, she said, the Guard presented her with the Illinois lab’s results indicating lead in the family’s couch. She and Peter wrapped the couch in a cover and stored it out of the children’s reach on a porch.
Bush initially told Reuters the Guard had permanently removed the Prices from the duplex immediately upon learning of Emily’s first high test. State health inspection records and photographic evidence show otherwise.
Scores of time-stamped family photos taken by Coryn show the Prices going about their daily routines in the duplex during the months after the Guard’s testing turned up leaded paint chips and soil at the home. One picture shows Emily and her older sister dressed in Halloween costumes sewn by their mother. Emily was a butterfly. Others show the girls opening presents on Christmas, in the living room beneath the decorated tree. Another the next month shows Emily brushing her sister’s hair in the master bedroom.
By February 2017, Emily’s symptoms had worsened and she was at risk of falling off the growth chart for her age. Another blood test revealed her lead levels were the seventh-highest among more than 64,000 young children tested in Louisiana last year, according to a Reuters analysis of state health data.
Coryn was shocked. At first, she said, she thought the result was a mistake. Another test days later confirmed it. Doctors told her Emily might soon require hospitalization and chelation therapy, an aggressive course of medication to remove lead from the body.
After her pediatrician reported Emily’s poisoning to the state health department last May, a state-ordered inspection found her still living in the home. Inspectors found several lead hazards there, including on Emily’s windowsill and in the yard where she played. The state’s report says those home hazards – and not the Prices’ couch – were the likely sources of Emily’s poisoning. It recommended the Guard spend $2,100 to remediate the home.
Only then was the family moved out of the duplex permanently.
The Guard is unaware of any other lead poisoning cases in the housing at Gillis Long, Bush said. Since the Price incident, he said, the Guard has remediated potential lead hazards at the family’s former home and 13 others on post – repainting, changing household fixtures, and placing new sod in front yards.
It is too early to know how lead poisoning will affect Emily in the long run. Her lead levels fell gradually after she left the duplex but remain above the CDC’s elevated threshold.
The CDC says there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood. After exposure, the toxin can be stored in the bones, and re-released into the bloodstream during growth spurts. As they age, childhood lead-poisoning victims can have learning, behavioral, reproductive and other health issues. Research has linked exposure to an increased risk of early mortality.
Now three, Emily has reached most developmental milestones on time. She is eating more. During a reporter’s visit in July, she polished off a plate of home-cooked sugar grits. But she is small for her age, and her speech is still emerging.
Doctors are recommending Emily be evaluated again at age four. Since the poisoning, the costs of her medical care have soared.
By contrast, fixing lead hazards at the Prices’ former home was inexpensive: $1,000 for new sod, $1,000 for retouching paint and cleaning, state inspectors estimated last year.
Removing Emily from the home for the repairs, they wrote, was “priceless.”
Additional reporting by Andrea Januta in New York. Editing by Ronnie Greene