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Local program aims to remove lead hazards from Delaware homes

As communities in Flint, Michigan express concern about the risk of lead poisoning from their water, there’s another ongoing effort here in Delaware to reduce lead exposure.

In 1978, the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-based paint. But houses that were built before 1978 are likely to have traces of lead paint. And often times, homeowners and renters aren’t made aware of this until someone comes along to inspect their homes.



On a rainy morning in Laurel, Delaware, I’ve arrived at a two-story house that for the time being, has been temporarily abandoned. The house belongs to Larittica Handy.


“It was built before 1978, I’m not sure of the exact date, but I know it’s very old," said Handy.

We’re standing in her screened front porch, mostly empty except for a plastic chair and a children’s basketball hoop. She, her husband and two kids, ages one and seven, left shortly after her house was tested for lead in October.


“When my family and I moved into the house, that was not one thing we suspected," said Handy.

Handy’s family moved in four years ago.


“We came in, we painted, we didn’t think that was an issue," said Handy. "It was just the day that I filled that application out that said, do you live in a older home? Do you have children?”

Handy was at a homebuyer’s seminar last year when she came across that application from First State Community Action Agency. The organization works in partnership with the Division of Public Health and La Esperanza to reach out to homeowners and renters who live in old buildings.

The initiative is called De-Lead Delaware. In its first year, it’s helped 48 homes. The goal is to get to 250 homes in three years.

A 2005 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than a third of homes across the country--that’s over 37 million houses and apartments--have lead-based paint somewhere in the building. And the CDC says there are at least half a million children in the U.S. who have high levels of lead in their blood.

It’s not certain exactly how many homes in Delaware contain a lead hazard, but the First State Community Action Agency has focused their program on specific zip codes in Dover, Milton, Laurel, Seaford and Bethel.


“And those zipcodes were the ones that struck out as far as the most homes with historic districts of pre-1978’s," said Sharon McPhatter, who coordinates the De-Lead Program.

At Larritica Handy’s house, a contractor pulls up--Roger Gordon, co-owner of Tag Construction. It’s his second day working on the house and for health reasons, he says I can’t go in with him -- but he shows me evidence of lead right outside her front door.


“Like here, we’re on a porch, prime example--this is lead," he said, pointing to the cracked paint on along the side of the porch. "Anytime you see the chipping paint, that’s lead paint.”

And in Handy’s house lead is high among the windows and the floor. The windows have lead paint, which Gordon will go and scrape off and repaint with non-lead paint. But as for how lead gets on the floor, Scott Smith, De-Lead’s crew chief says that’s coming from what he calls “friction points” in a home--windows and doors.


“As a windows goes up and down, if it’s rubbing on the window channel, if it’s slamming down on the sill--every time it does that, if the paint is already blistering, popping, defraying, it creates this dust," said Smitih. "When you open a window, you know what happens with the dust, it blows inside.”

And that’s problematic for young kids who, being kids, are crawling around the floor on their hands and knees


“With kids under 6, everything goes in their mouths, hand to mouth. They’re taking it in not in a week, but over three months, over six months, a year, they’re taking in this microscopic lead dust paint and ingesting it and you’ll see their lead level go up," said Smith.

Larittica Handy had her kids tested and their results thankfully came back pretty low. But another participant of the program, Necolle Hitch in Seaford, found that one of her kids had a high level of lead in her blood.


“I took my daughter to the doctor and she got tested," said Hitch. "Her levels were 5.6 in November.”

The CDC notes that there is no safe blood lead level in children has been identified but medical professionals consider any level above 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood to be a concern. High levels of lead in the blood can harm multiple areas of the body, reduce IQ and cause behavioral problems.

Hitch had no idea that the house she was renting had such high levels of lead, so she took action and applied to the De-Lead program. After her house was abated in November, her daughter’s lead level dropped.


“In January, her levels went down to 3.8," said Hitch.

Lead abatement is an expensive process that can cost upwards of $20,000. Residents whose income levels qualify for the De-Lead program can get the work done at no charge and the organization will help provide temporary shelter.

Larritica Handy’s in-laws live just a few minutes away so she and her husband chose to stay with them. But she says they’re eager to get back home.


“I have a seven year old," said Handy. "His room his palace, so he’s like, 'When can I go back home? When can I play with my toys?' We’re trying to assure him, 'you’ll get to go back home soon, we just don’t know when.'”

But when Handy’s son finally does return home, it’ll be a safer place to play than it was before.