Toddler’s Lead Poison Scare Turns Phish Family Into Accidental Activists

Oct 11, 2017

Jon and Briar Fishman tried to do all the right things when they moved their growing family from Vermont to a 200-year-old farmhouse in Lincolnville in 2006.

They had asked a contractor to test it for lead paint, which they knew was a common hazard in old homes, and were told that it was fine.

“I’m a hippie mom,” said Briar Fishman, a mom of five, whose husband is the drummer for the band Phish and a new selectman for the town of Lincolnville. “I thought this house was lead free.”

So it was with shock and alarm that they learned in 2014 at their toddler son’s annual physical at their pediatrician’s office in Vermont that he had elevated lead levels in his blood.

“We were terrified,” she said, adding that the doctor told them they had work to do. “‘He said: ‘you have lead paint in your environment. Figure it out.’”

The Fishmans are far from alone in needing to figure out lead. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that at least four million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. Approximately 500,000 children from one to five years old have blood lead levels above five micrograms per deciliter, which is the level at which the CDC recommends public health actions be initiated. Before the risks to children were known, lead was used in many products, including paint before 1978.

Lead, a heavy metal, can have a very serious and permanent effect on a child’s growth and development, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention. It can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, hearing damage, language or speech delays and lower intelligence. Exposure to lead dust from old paint is the most common cause of childhood lead poisoning in Maine, a state with older housing stock.

Briar Fishman remembers that her baby son would sit and play in front of the fireplace, a warm and cozy spot he liked best in the house. She didn’t think anything of the paint that was chipping off the fireplace mantel, until she learned the bad news at the pediatrician’s office and started digging into potential problems.

Toddlers explore their world by putting things into their mouths, and so have a high risk of getting lead poisoning, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Young children can chew or lick pieces of peeling paint or swallow house dust or soil that contains small pieces of lead paint.

“The hazard is any surface that has lead on it,” Briar Fishman said, adding that they made the snap decision to move their family back to a newer, lead-free home in Vermont while they began to deal with their house. “We didn’t want to leave Maine, but we couldn’t live in a house where the kids were getting poisoned.”

Increasing awareness of lead

Maine State Toxicologist Andrew Smith said that understanding of lead poisoning has increased over the years. As testing and studies have improved, researchers have found that lead affects the cognitive function of children at increasingly lower lead levels. In the past, the blood lead intervention level was 60 micrograms per deciliter, but that number has been dropping and is now just five micrograms per deciliter.

“The current scientific consensus is that there’s really no safe level of exposure to lead,” Smith said. “We can show you studies of effects on educational performance, loss of IQ, etc. Not necessarily big effects, but clear effects. Why would you want to be doing something that would limit a child’s cognitive function? If they’re living in an environment that’s not lead safe, make it lead safe.”

For the Fishmans in Lincolnville, that has been a long, expensive and ongoing ordeal. At first they weren’t sure they wanted to move back to their house in Maine, but they had put down roots and were homesick for the area. There are ways to control lead dust in a home that has lead paint, but they weren’t comfortable with that option.

“We decided ultimately we wanted to remove it all completely,” Briar Fishman said.

That included replacing old doors, windows and mantles — any surface that had lead paint. The remediation has cost them $30,000, and they discovered that some spots were missed in the process. Jon Fishman suggests to other parents in this boat to accompany the lead paint testing expert on the day of the test.

“It’s the most crucial phase,” the musician and newly elected Lincolnville selectman said. “See for yourself if it has lead or not.”

Because of their unwanted education in lead poisoning awareness, the Fishmans have become accidental activists about the problem. As a well-known musician, Jon Fishman had a megaphone of sorts to get the word out about the dangers of lead poisoning, and the couple has donated funds to help complete the recent documentary “MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic” and also spoken out about the issue.

“I’m just trying to parlay the little celebrity I have to raise awareness,” Jon Fishman told a HuffPost reporter in 2015. “[Lead] is an epidemic. And it’s causing serious health problems in lots of kids around the country.”

Thankfully, the Fishmans have not noticed delayed speech or other lead poisoning symptoms in their son, a friendly, active little boy, though they said they are always keeping an eye out for them. And this fall, the family is remodeling their camp on a pond in nearby Northport, which has exterior shingles covered in lead paint. To safely remove the shingles, certified lead renovators must wear protective Tyvek suits, respirators and cover the ground underneath the house with plastic so that errant lead dust does not escape into the atmosphere.

One certified renovator, Zechariah Juarez, who was working at the camp recently said that because the regulations around lead removal are so strict, many Maine contractors do not want to take the work on. Right now, there is so much new construction work in his part of central Maine that he does not have to take on a lot of lead projects, and that’s the way he likes it.

“You don’t have to deal with the hassle,” he said.

Briar and Jon Fishman stressed that there are many things parents can do to make their homes safe for their children — and that parents do need to find out if lead is a problem in their homes. It’s not OK to be blissfully unaware of the dangers that may well lurk in old Maine houses like theirs, they said. And it’s necessary to make sure that children have not been inadvertently exposed to the toxin.

“The education needs to begin when you give birth to your baby. This is something you need to take seriously. This is a major risk,” Briar Fishman said. “By the time there are symptoms, it’s way too late.”