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  • 22 Dec 2014

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Mother's documentary exposes 'America's secret epidemic'

Family's poisoning set Tamara Rubin on a mission to inform public of lead's dangers, politics surrounding it


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Anti-lead activist Tamara Rubin, of the Lead Safe America Foundation, at home with her son Charlie, 4. Rubin is against fluoride in the water, stating that it increased the chances of ingesting lead from the water supply.Tamara Rubin’s home and family were wracked by lead contamination eight years ago, catapulting her on a new life journey.

In 2005, a painter used an illegal method — an open-flame torch — to remove old leaded paint at the family’s Irvington home in Northeast Portland. Her young son soon took ill.

“The doctor said, ‘You have to move out of your house immediately; your baby has lead poisoning,’ ” Rubin recalls.

Lead poisoning can lead to brain and nerve damage, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and other ailments. Studies link it to reduced academic achievement and higher levels of juvenile crime.

The Rubins ultimately won a $40,000 settlement from their contractor, but it was a paltry sum compared to the learning disabilities and other health consequences to their children, plus the costs of decontaminating their home.

Rubin, then working as a computer consultant, felt a call to alert others about the perils of lead, particularly mothers of young children.

She began speaking out against lead in her children’s schools. She alerted other moms about lead dangers in children’s toys and jewelry.

She started a website, mychildrenhaveleadpoisoning.com, and blogged about lead hazards.

Reporters and television producers began calling on her, first to share her family’s experiences, and, eventually, as an authority on the subject.

She lobbied in Salem for new regulations, testifying at legislative committee hearings.

She spoke at national conferences. She was quoted in numerous newspaper articles, including USA Today and a recent story in The New York Times. She appeared on the “Today” show, and local television segments across the country — plus a recent one on the Voice of Russia.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Tamara Rubin bathes her son Charlie in a lead-free sink, full of water that has gone through an extensive filtration system at their early 20th century home in Sellwood.

Start a panic

Two years ago, Rubin formed a nonprofit, the Lead Safe America Foundation, recruiting national experts for the board. Since then, Rubin has assisted 2,000 families coping with lead poisoning and contamination.

“I get calls from between three and five moms a day,” Rubin says.

She concluded that being a citizens lobbyist in Salem wasn’t getting anywhere, and that using popular media would make a bigger difference.

She has posted 18 video pieces on YouTube. Then, a year and a half ago, she stopped working as a computer consultant to work full-time — without pay — on her latest project, a feature-length documentary she calls “MisLead: America’s Secret Epidemic.”

On April 5, Rubin screened segments from a one hour and 45 minute “rough cut” of her documentary at the Public Health Seminar Series at Oregon Health & Science University.

“I’m really mad today; I’m actually furious,” Rubin tells the audience at the OHSU School of Nursing.

The day before, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced it was lowering the lead exposure threshold it uses to gauge lead poisoning in children, from 10 micrograms per deciliter in the blood to 5 micrograms. The federal agency estimates 450,000 children ages 1 to 5 could have lead poisoning, many of them undiagnosed.

Rubin has long argued for using an exposure level of 2 or 2.5 micrograms, and says a more proper gauge is children and youths younger than 18, because lead affects the developing brain, and those effects can be permanent. By those measures, she says, as many as 22 million children and youths under 18 may have lead poisoning.

Federal regulators are too timid, Rubin tells the nursing students and health practitioners at OHSU. “They don’t want to start a panic.”

Personal sacrifice

Rubin admits that some consider her a “zealot.” But she comes armed with scientific studies and experts to back up her data, many of whom are interviewed in her documentary.

On the day the CDC news came out, Rubin got calls from producers associated with Bill Moyers’ PBS show, who wanted to air footage from her documentary. The Associated Press also called her for an interview and sent a film crew to her home.

So far, she has raised about $150,000 in cash for her documentary, plus another $200,000 in in-kind services. She has talked with HBO twice to see if it will air the documentary, and two other video distributors.

Rubin senses she is nearing the point where she can earn a salary for her foundation work, by selling distribution rights to the documentary.

It better happen soon, since her inventor husband also is working without a salary right now. After making expensive repairs to assure their home in Southeast Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood is lead-free, the family is low on cash and the house is in foreclosure proceedings.

“We have such faith in this as an initiative to help other people,” Rubin says of her documentary, “it’s worth the personal sacrifice.”

Many people around the country think lead is no longer a problem, Rubin says, because the U.S. banned leaded gasoline and leaded paints long ago.

But U.S. paint companies still sell leaded paint overseas, she says, and it’s being used domestically in marine and industrial coatings. Some pipes being sold today and labeled as lead-free actually are 8 percent lead, Rubin says.

Many people, who have been exposed to images of African-American children in older East Coast cities poisoned by lead, assume leaded paint is only a concern of low-income families in older, poorly maintained rental homes, Rubin says. But in Portland, she notes, many of our finest old homes are now in desirable neighborhoods such as Irvington. As a result, many people are unaware of the dangers lurking in their windows, porches and other places where leaded paint was used.

“There isn’t a scientific debate” any more about the dangers of lead, Rubin says. “It’s a political debate,” she says. “It’s the political will to move on this.”