LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News Volume 12 Number 4, June 2012, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Joint Editors: Elizabeth O’Brien and Anne Roberts

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Queenslander Renovation Case Study: My story of lead poisoning

By Stefania Fischer, DIY Renovator, 28th June 2012

Editor’s Note: Stef initially submitted a potted version of her experience as a DIY renovator, after the ABC broadcast their Background Briefing radio documentary on 16th May 2012, [online at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2012-05-06/3983094 ]. When she phoned the Global Lead Advice and Support Service for the first time on 27th June, 2012, she kindly agreed to submit the following article in time for this June newsletter. Thanks Stef!

In early 2010, my partner David and I bought our first home. It was a gorgeous, slightly run-down architect-designed Queenslander that had been built 100 years earlier. The house had so much character, reminiscent of the classic Queenslanders that we all know and love. I fell in love. We had moved to Warwick, a small regional town 2 hours west of Brisbane, for a tree-change from our busy lives in Brisbane.

It was a chance for us to have a fresh start, with what we hoped would eventually become a beautiful home for us. Since I was a child, I had always wanted to renovate an old Queenslander. Growing up in the older suburbs of inner Brisbane probably shaped this passion of mine and when we got the keys to our grand old girl I was filled with excitement about the coming years and how we were going to transform her from a shabby old-maid to a spectacular version of her true self.

Although I was busy trying to complete my Masters studies, I was keen to get started on the renovations immediately. I was aware of the fact that there would certainly be lead paint in the house, given its age and so, I purchased a couple of lead test kits from Bunnings (at $30 each) and started researching options for lead paint removal and how we might be able to remove it safely ourselves. I came across a number of products that were designed to decontaminate the lead from paint when removing it from surfaces. I was keen to use this kind of product on our home but their availability in Queensland was very limited, and their cost is exorbitant. A few litres of paint stripper costs over $100 and with a house the size of ours, it was not going to be financially possible.

While I was conducting my research into lead paint removal, I was struck by the seemingly obvious lack of information about lead paint removal and lead poisoning in the Queensland setting. I began to think that if the issue of lead was such a risk, there would be a) more products available for its safe removal; and b) more information in hardware stores about the risks of lead paint and how to effectively and safely remove it. I then began to look further abroad at information from the US and realized that there was far more information available to US residents about lead paint and its safe removal than we were given here in Australia. I also assumed, that because there wasn’t the same huge protective campaign being conducted here, we must not have the same risk of lead poisoning as those people living in the US. Wrong assumption!

As it stands, I read all I could about how to remove the lead paint from our house safely. I used a biodegradable wet paint stripper, drop sheets to collect the paint, and gloves to protect my hands. I was meticulous and methodical with the process and made sure that the areas I worked in were thoroughly cleaned after stripping. I only worked on small areas at a time and only disturbed paint that really needed to be removed. I thought I was doing the right thing.

Around 2 weeks after finishing stripping and repainting our beautiful front doors, I fell seriously ill. It was the 1st June 2011, 6 months after we began our renovations. I had trouble getting out of bed because I felt extremely dizzy. I had a headache which lasted almost a week and the dizziness and lack of balance remained for about a week also. I went up to the local hospital, and the attending doctor told me that I probably had ‘benign vertigo’ and that it would go away. A pat on the back and I was off back home.

One week after the dizziness began; I started having a lot of trouble walking. I developed tremors all throughout my body and I completely lost my balance. I had a tight feeling around my forehead and I was basically bed ridden. I was deeply concerned about what was happening to me and I went to see my local GP.

He took one look at me and started to worry. He conducted a neurological examination and immediately called a neurologist, fearing a brain tumor or MS. I asked him if it was possible that I had been poisoned by lead. His words to me were ‘It’s not possible. You’d have to eat a tonne of lead paint to get as sick as you are right now’.

This was the most fundamental and pivotal moment of the entire duration of my illness. The advice of one doctor took me on a wild goose chase, following completely wrong leads and getting sicker by the day. One simple blood test could have revealed the source of my illness. Instead, I had around 30 blood tests for every god-forsaken illness on the planet, 4 MRIs (that all returned normal results), multiple visits with 4 neurologists and one ambulance ride. David and I spent thousands of dollars, got our wills sorted out and I even planned my funeral. We were sure that this was something I would never recover from. I was bedridden for about 2 months and spent the next 9 months slowly, very slowly regaining some faculties. I had to give up my studies and work and became completely housebound.

The following list represents all of the symptoms I experienced in the last 12 month period. Some of these have gone, some still remain strong.

Dizziness; headaches; extreme weakness and fatigue; difficulty finding words; forgetfulness and memory loss; high blood pressure; loss of balance and the ability to walk; tremors and twitches in hands and feet; numbness; digestive problems such as cramps, pain and constipation; insomnia and restless sleeping; joint pain in the fingers and hands; irregular menstrual periods.

Each and every one of these symptoms is a symptom of lead poisoning in adults. It took 12 months, and a random visit to a new GP 4 weeks ago, to even suggest the idea of having a blood test to measure my lead levels. My lead levels after 12 months when I was unable to renovate were ‘quoted’ to me as being in the ‘normal’ range of exposure. Therefore, my doctor concluded that although I had previously been lead poisoned, I had a normal reading now and that was that, case closed.

This was not right. I am still sick. My doctor told me nothing of the process for how lead is stored in the bones, how it can leach out, how it’s important to continue to test yourself for lead exposure if you are in an environment that contains lead and that there are therapies available to remove the lead from a person’s body. I had to find this out ON MY OWN FRUITION using the internet as my guide.

So needless to say, my nickname these days is ‘Dr Google’. I have a mountain of papers on my desk at home about lead poisoning including scientific journal articles on symptoms and treatments; public health papers from the US as well as the UK and I’ve spent countless hours in front of my computer scouring; reading; investigating and educating myself about lead. Not one of the doctors I have seen, either GP or specialist has demonstrated to me, any knowledge of lead and lead poisoning, much less up-to-date knowledge of the effects of low blood lead levels as revealed by the mainly US research of the past decade. This is too much of a gap in understanding for me to rest easy with. I am greatly disturbed by the lack of education in the medical field on the dangers of lead poisoning and the risks involved with exposure. Each doctor I saw knew that I was renovating an old house. This should have rung alarm bells for each and every one of them. It did not. Instead I was shuttled from one specialist to another, ruling out MS, Parkinson’s, brain tumours and other neurodegenerative diseases, until the final neurologist told me that I was probably suffering from a ‘psychosomatic disorder’ resulting from the ‘stresses’ of my life. The ONLY stress in my life was the ILLNESS. It has been a dumbfounding experience to say the least.

Even now, after having been tested for lead and diagnosed with ‘lead poisoning’ I am still faced with the ignorance of a medical system that is supposedly based on the premise of ‘do no harm’. Doing nothing in the case of lead poisoning IS doing harm. I have to fight to get my blood lead levels checked; my kidney function checked, even my blood pressure checked. Doctors just don’t know enough about lead poisoning to a) consider it as a viable cause of illness b) be able to understand what a patient is experiencing; c) have any idea of what tests to conduct for a patient with lead poisoning; and most importantly d) have a clue about how to give appropriate nutritional or clean-up advice, and treatments for the patient.

The anguish of having a long-term, undiagnosed illness is one thing. Having to endure it, after diagnosis, without any indication of how it can be treated because of a doctor’s ignorance is completely inexcusable. Lead poisoning is a serious public health issue. It IS a real and apparent illness that presents in the community and it is VITAL that front line health workers are educated in its identification, management and treatment.

I believe there is also more that can be done in the education of the DIY community about the dangers of lead. Anyone who is living in or renovating an old house should have their blood lead levels tested at regular intervals to avoid unnecessary illness. I think it’s of particular importance to those of us living in Queensland to have access to lead abatement services at reasonable prices, given the recent flooding in 2011 and the number of damaged homes that need refurbishment. I take complete responsibility for the actions and for my exposure to lead in my home. I do not wish to shift the blame onto anyone else or onto an institution for putting me at risk. It’s a risk I knew existed. But there is no excuse for a lack of awareness about post-exposure treatment for people and no excuse for not having clearer and more obvious public health measures out there for people to access. We are all aware of the dangers of asbestos. Why should the dangers of lead be treated with any less caution? I for one believe in the seriousness of the issue and it has come to me at a high price. I only hope that the more we educate ourselves and the community, the fewer cases like mine will exist. It can do no harm!

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