Since the U.S. government ordered lead removed from paint and gasoline 30 years ago, the incidence of childhood lead poisoning has dropped to about one percent in most communities across the country. Exposure to the toxic element can cause brain damage, IQ loss, speech and learning deficits and in rare cases death.
So, early last year, when officials in Fort Wayne, Indiana, discovered high lead levels in young immigrants from Burma, they took action, setting up a pilot program for pre-school children to help them catch up to their peers through speech, cognitive and nutrition therapy.
Burmese parents place high value on education
On a bitterly cold winter day, teacher Leslie Lawson helps the tiny students in the program off the school bus. Instead of play clothes, these youngsters who range in age from 3-5 are wearing party dresses, make-up, suits and ties. Their parents believe school is very important; this is the first time anyone in their families has had a chance to go to school.
Lawson says when the kids first arrived in her classroom, the combination of their cultural upbringing and the effects of the lead put them significantly behind the developmental level of other kids their age. "The first three weeks I had them, they stood there," she recalls. "They just stood on the carpet and looked at the stuff to play with. Now what I see, because I've taught them how to play and they do have some language, is they are sitting and playing."
Poison sources are common traditional medicines
In the U.S., most kids who get lead poisoning have been exposed to dust from old lead paint. But most of these kids were poisoned when they were given daw tway and daw kyin, two traditional Burmese medicines with high lead levels, used to ease small children's upset stomachs.
Loaine Hagerty, with the local county health department, notes that lead exposure through food and medicine is not uncommon outside the United States, pointing out, "It's the same way with the Mexican candies that have been identified with lead in them. Here there are precautions in place to protect children, but overseas those same precautions aren't in place, so the children are exposed that way."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that many indigenous medicines from East Indian, Middle Eastern, Western Asian and Hispanic cultures also contain high levels of lead, and children adopted from China, Guatemala, Romania, Russia and South Korea often enter the country with extremely high blood lead levels.
Learning the basics
Back in Leslie Lawson's classroom, the first lesson of the day is starting. Both morning and afternoon classes begin with a review of hygiene rules. Many of these children were born in refugee camps, and running water is still a new and delightful amenity. Lawson uses a lot of visual materials like flash cards and posters on the wall to get the kids talking, and there is an interpreter in the classroom to help out with more challenging concepts.
Amy Hesting, a registered environmental health specialist with the health department, explains that speech is one of the easiest ways to determine to what degree lead poisoning has affected a child's development. "The problem with the Burmese population is [that] it's very difficult to assess if they have a speech problem because we don't speak Burmese." Studies have shown that kids with learning disabilities learn more quickly from their peers than from their teachers. So, each class includes a few native English-speaking pre-schoolers as well.
Dealing with nutritional deficiencies
Two years ago, Ma Wee came to Ft. Wayne, which is home to one of the largest Burmese communities outside Southeast Asia. She says her 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter loves her new school. "She's happy and she wakes up very early every morning so she can go to school." Her daughter says her favorite thing at school is food.
Eating is actually a very important part of the day for these children. One of the effects of lead poisoning is a loss of appetite. Lawson says several of her 5-year-old students weigh less than 10 kilograms and, "because of that, they have a short attention span. That affects their [cognitive] processing. They don't process and then they don't comprehend, so there are many things across the board that they have problems with."
So Lawson prepares nutritionally rich shakes for the kids during snack time and tries to make eating fun by using games. She also sends information about good nutrition home to parents, to help neutralize some of the effects of the lead.
There is no known cure for lead poisoning. In severe cases, children may undergo chelation therapy to clean their blood, but once they have been exposed to lead, they will always have it in their bodies. Some may have life-long learning disabilities; others may not be affected in any significant way.
Ma Wee says, whatever the outcome, she's just happy her daughter has such a wonderful opportunity. "All I want is for my child to be safe and learn a lot, especially English."