Haven’t been here in a while. There are a few reasons. One has been a feeling of defeat, maybe even desperation. I’d been composing a blog post in my mind with the title you see above. Along the lines of “My Tin Foil Hat,” it was to be a self-knowing, wry look at my tendency to fear toxins everywhere. The focus was to be my testing the soil around our home for lead.
See, we moved here to get away from lead. I don’t want to go into all the toxic effects of lead and at what minute quantities it appears to negatively affect cognitive function – permanently – in children. (Hint: there is no threshold – it seems to have a measurable impact at the smallest detectable quantities.) (However, there are hopeful studies of rats showing that an enriched environment can completely or nearly completely reverse such damage. The big news may be what a rotten impact an impoverished environment can have.) Anyhow, it’s hard to live in a place in New England that is lead-free. We were living in an apartment with lead paint, some of it chipping indoors, and which recently had had lead paint sanded off the exterior – which pulverizes and disperses the lead into the surrounding soil. We decided to leave because of the real risks and because it was making me feel under siege. (Jane and Miren’s lead tests were normal – 2 mcg/dl.)
So we moved to a condo built in 1982 – after lead paint had stopped being used in homes. I reveled in the relaxation – no need to be constantly scrubbing their hands and the floor, worrying about what they’re putting into their mouths. (And it’s good for your immune system – especially if you have allergy or autoimmune tendencies as we do – to be exposed to bacteria, to get dirt in your mouth. They’d been deprived of that exposure.) Soon after we moved in, apple trees started blossoming. It smelled good here. I loved the quiet, the nature, living in the country. In the fall, the trees bore fruit, and my little 18-month-olds and I would trek out one or several times a day to pick some apples to eat on the spot. Our holiday card features them joyously eating these apples, with the caption, “Happy Apples!”
Back when we were still in the lead paint apartment, we shared a Rosh Hashanah dinner with a contractor friend of Dan’s family. We asked about his view of the risks of lead from old homes. Being a contractor, he didn’t think there was much to it. Being a guy who knows things, he mentioned how they used to spray lead arsenate in apple orchards, implying that this was a greater problem.
Our first year here, it slowly dawned on me that this may have been an apple orchard. There are twelve or so apple trees on the property, mostly on the periphery. I told myself they could just be a lot of apple trees that someone planted at some time around a farm – right? In the late winter, the father of a toddler at a play group asked where we lived. He smiled and said, “Oh, the old apple orchard! We used to go there for cider.” Ugh.
Still, I wasn’t sure if it was a real problem even if so. I looked up apple orchards and lead poisoning online and couldn’t find any material that discussed more than the potential of lead poisoning in children from living on converted apple orchards. (I decided not to think about the arsenic just yet.) I couldn’t find anything that showed that children living in old orchards had higher blood lead levels than others, although, extrapolating from urban neighborhoods with comparable levels of lead in the soil, which correlate very closely with elevated blood levels of kids there, it seemed a likely risk to me. In fact, lead in soil is far more predictive of elevated blood lead than is age of housing. But I wasn’t sure of anything – whether lead arsenate had been used here, if the guy even was clear on where we lived. More and more, though, I felt under siege again, uncomfortable with my kids playing in our own yard.
So after a summer of fretting, I decided to test. I expected my tests to put my mind at ease, or at least show that some areas of the yard were safe. I ordered a professional kit with five tests in it. A few weekends ago I sampled five places in our yard. All came back positive.
I’d tested at the lowest level indicating contamination – 100 ppm. The kits can test for up to 500 ppm and now I want to know just how bad it is. The EPA thinks 400 ppm is okay for children to play on. I don’t know what this is based on: evidence that children aren’t harmed by soil with this level of contamination, or the economic burden of cleaning up all the soil that would be considered contaminated at a lower threshold. Some online resources advise caution at 100 ppm. Canada’s limit for children’s play areas is 125 ppm and Minnesota’s is 100 ppm. Lead occurs naturally in soil at 15 to 40 ppm and is not considered hazardous at those levels.
To find out what we’re dealing with here – 100 ppm, 500 ppm, or somewhere in between, I’ll have to retest. We’ve had a rough time financially this month and I haven’t been able to buy more tests yet. And no matter what the results, I don’t know what I’d feel is safe. Not higher than background is what I’d really like.
Now the guilt sets in. Why didn’t I ask if this had been an orchard? The answer is I honestly didn’t see it as such. And what would I have done then? This was the only appropriate rental I could find at the time – we didn’t have a lot of options, and no others without lead paint. But once I suspected, why didn’t I at least start washing the girls’ hands and the floor more? The floor would go literally weeks without being mopped. (Gross, I know – another issue.) And why didn’t I test sooner, as soon as I knew it probably had been an orchard?
And the self-pity: Why me? Is this a cosmic joke? Why did the universe put me back in a place with a lead hazard when it knew that’s what I was fleeing?
And the self-questioning: How big a deal is this? Have they been harmed? How much? Their levels at the two-year physical were 3 mcg/dl – higher than I’d expect moving from a house with lead paint to one with none, but I don’t really know how this works. (If environmental lead remains static, it is normal to have a higher reading at two years old than at one. the national mean blood level is estimated to be more like 2 mcg/dl. My daughters may have suffered the loss of at least one IQ point compared to the norm if some research holds. Big deal, right? Why am I so attached to a couple of IQ points? And does it really work that way anyway (see rat study)? They have a highly stimulating environment and are way ahead with their verbal skills, to the point where I sometimes feel sheepish about it around parents whose kids are not at their level. But… the test was at the time of year that blood lead would be lowest. Maybe in our first or second summer here it had gone higher – possibly up to 5 mcg/dl according to some research on seasonal variations in blood lead – which would have been a level of concern for our pediatrician..) Their level is within the norm for this region, though
So I do and don’t want to get them tested again. It wouldn’t be as high now as it would have been in August, but it might show if it’s elevated. And if it’s normal it would tell me what? Keep up the vigilance? We dodged a bullet? Stop worrying? If it’s elevated it would cause us heartache, but if we just didn’t know – which we wouldn’t if I didn’t insist on testing (the doctor doesn’t feel it’s necessary) – would our lives be any worse for not knowing this?
But then I think, Miren’s gross motor skills seem a bit behind, at least compared to Jane’s, though I’ve attributed this to her balance being affected by her tendency to have fluid in her ears, and just not being very motivated to put on her own shoes. And sometimes they both seem quite upsettable – but aren’t all toddlers? Could picking up on my own anxiety be the cause of their upsets?
And are they going to suffer from not getting outdoor exercise at home due to my lead obsession? Are we all suffering because now I feel we need to chauffeur them to experiences at parks, away from home? Which we often did before, but now feel compelled to. Then again, how uncontaminated is the soil at the parks?
I moved us here so I could not worry about this stuff. I know myself.
The only cosmic reasons I can come up with of why we unwittingly moved from lead to lead are (a) to challenge me to learn how to live with a known, mild-to-moderate, largely containable threat without going overboard with my anxieties about it (my diabetes is a similar example of this), and (b) to keep me organized and moving forward. Regarding (b), it does make me wash the floors more, so that helps me keep the house slightly cleaner. Although, maybe just the floors are cleaner, and the rest is messier, because I only have a limited amount of time and energy to spend on housecleaning. And it does get me thinking of moving, of buying a house, and maybe that’s good? Or not. Maybe it keeps us from settling here – fully unpacking, making it nice, putting up curtains. I’m so tired of not feeling comfortable and organized where I live. There always seems a reason not to be. Focusing on buying a house could make me hopeful and motivated or it could just distract me from making the best of living here and doing other things, like solving my problem of making money and finding childcare so I don’t go crazy as a stay-at-home-mom, which I definitely have been lately. Our house-buying options would be so much better if we could wait until I have an income, too. But then, maybe I wouldn’t feel motivated enough to get work if I were too comfortable with the status quo, that is, living in borderline poverty in a nice rental that is just a little too small for us.
Another possible reason this happened is that there is no reason. Another is that the tests were wrong. I doubt it, but I would love for that to be the case. I would love, love, love it.
My original essay was going to focus on the plethora of tests my family and I are getting done lately to finally get at the bottom of things – or not, I suppose, as this first round of tests reveals. Last week, I finally sent in my blood to get tested for MODY 2, the rare form of diabetes I think I have. When I can summon up the grit to pile the girls into the car for a traumatic blood draw, probably next Monday, they will get tested for lead levels, Jane for food allergies (again), and both for the genes for celiac disease. And, as always, I am testing my blood sugar several times a day. In fact, compulsive glucose testing was becoming an emotional and financial burden ($0.40/test strip). Fortunately, I’ve cut back on glucose testing lately. In truth, the lead scare had something to do with this. I could not bring myself to fret over my blood sugars in the way that I had because I was already overwhelmed with anxiety over the lead. This was helped by my blood sugars going lower in the past week or so. I’m not sure why. I suspect it has at least something to do with eating more blueberries, which apparently stimulate glucokinase, the enzyme I’m deficient in. Blueberries also help birth more neurons. Aside from their solanine content (low, but present) and fructose (low for a fruit) – two things that had put me off eating them much during the past year (health freakouts come and go) – I can’t find much dirt on blueberries and they seem to help with two concerns – protection from brain damage and my particular form of diabetes. Bring on the blueberries!
So, what will the testing tell us? Testing doesn’t always settle matters. Sometimes it gives you a better outline of what you’re dealing with, but not great clarity. Sometimes it stirs up trouble better left alone. Sometimes it can save your life. It can also ease your mind. Interpretation and subsequent actions always roll in tandem.
In a little while, I’ll have a few answers. Then I’ll have more questions. Some tests may lead to more testing. If I have a glucokinase mutation, there’s a 75% chance that at least one of my girls has it (a fifty percent chance for each). Then what? If I have a glucokinase mutation, I’ve always had it, and it was subclinical until my pregnancy, when I got gestational diabetes. People with this mutation don’t usually suffer complications, so it’s hard to know how much to worry about it. Yes, blood sugars in my range are known to be damaging, but there may be aspects of this mutation that are protective (such as having very low triglycerides). It’s kind of like the lead. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, the mean blood lead level for U.S. children was over 13 mcg/dl. It’s dropped more than 10 mcg/dl since then, largely due to the bans on leaded gasoline and lead solder in food cans. It’s unlikely any of us had blood levels as low as 3, 4, or 5 mcg/dl, like Jane and Miren’s. (I do know several local families whose kids got a 6, a level of concern, and one with a 10, and I have to believe they’re okay. The kids seem okay.) So, when the consequences seem undramatic for this form of diabetes, this level of lead contamination, etc., do all the precautions make sense?
It’s similar to the allergies. I know how allergic Jane is to eggs, but to nuts, that’s based on a test and not experience. I don’t want the experience, but then again, it could be a phantom – a false positive. But a nut allergy is so damn scary, I’m not willing to risk exposure to find out. I’m just hoping for the Chinese remedy FAHF-2 to get on the market soon, and to work, so that we can kiss food allergies goodbye. I guess that’s the good part about testing, about knowing what you have. If there’s a remedy available, you can take it. Like with my diabetes, Metformin is not helpful, may even be counterproductive. Untested, I’d be assumed by doctors to be a Type II and would get unhelpful care like that. Tested, I know that when a glucokinase activator becomes available – and there are some in the pharmaceutical pipeline – that this is my best bet for normalizing my blood sugars. Can I tell you how awesome this would be?
Some things you just have to make a judgment call about. I’ve read enough about autoimmune disease (as well as unsavory correlations between wheat consumption and cardiovascular disease), that, even though gluten is the most troublesome thing on my list of Things to Avoid, I think Jane and Miren and I are going to avoid it regardless of what any test says. If both of them show to have low risk of celiac, though, I might be able to worry a bit less about hidden gluten in things or the occasional foray into wheat products in social situations.in
So, hey, I’m back. This was too anxiety-ridden a topic for me for a while, but it’s not so bad to write about it now. It’s just so damn involved, with so many dark alleys and possibilities. My brain brims with facts, thoughts, and imaginings, but not in a good way. I feel tiresome to my friends, neurotic to my daughters (they will articulate it later), and time-wasting to my potential. This propensity to see so many possibilities in things, this obsessiveness, couldn’t this be used to make a movie, write a book, or organize a movement or something?
Honestly, I’ve done all of those things, writ small (short videos, plays, concerts, articles, art spaces, organizing) and have gotten just as uncomfortably obsessed about them. More so, in truth: their public, creative aspect sparking a drivenness I can’t turn off. Besides the fear of utter failure, besides fatigue, inertia, lack of time and resources, I think this is the number one or two reason I don’t do more of these things. I can feel the burnout rising faster than the inspiration.
This blog – it’s funny. It’s a creative outlet, but an outlet read by very few. Another reason I hadn’t posted in a while is that only my husband commented on my last post, “Oh, Long,” an essay I’d worked hard on and was proud of. I also was having trouble keeping up with Ben’s posts and giving them the consideration and response they deserved. It’s very hard to truly appreciate friends’ creative endeavors, to find the time, the patience, the attention. So those who create in the under-the-radar way that the unfamous create can often feel invisible, wondering, what is it worth? Testing, testing – anyone there? The flip side of getting noticed, though, is the possible negative reaction. I’ve done so little I haven’t had to deal with that much. It’s always so much easier to be the one with “potential” than to hold your dearest, flawed creation up for scrutiny – or indifference. And I’m as indifferent and judgmental as anyone. Fortunately, putting myself into the act of creating and sharing my creations makes me less so, more interested in others’. So it’s kind of the opposite of the navel-gazing exercise it might appear to be. What good is art? It might just make you a nicer person.