Health

The Smith’s had only lived in their Germantown rental for three years when the house became a hazard zone, in the span of one doctor’s visit.

Kelly Smith took her 1-year-old daughter Allie for a checkup where Allie’s blood was checked for lead. Kelly wasn’t nervous about the test – their late 1900s Germantown house had fresh paint and responsible landlords. But the test came back positive. Allie had an elevated level of lead in her blood.

Jonathan Smith, Kelly’s husband, remembers the aftermath.

“We immediately went down the path of Google, which was a bit scary,” he said.

Lisa Gillespie | wfpl.org

The Smith family poses for a photo in their Germantown home.

Allie’s blood levels were so alarming because of the potential health effects of exposure: seizures, developmental delays, kidney damage, decreased bone and muscle growth.

Like many cities, Louisville has old homes. And whether these homes have been renovated or just have new paint, residents are probably breathing in lead paint dust. The problem with this comes when there are children living in these homes. That’s because the younger a child is, the more lead is absorbed into the blood, which can lead to big health problems later on.

Historically, removing lead paint from a home has been expensive and involves chipping off paint, which can put even more lead into the air. But John Cullen, a Louisville entrepreneur is trying to change that.  Cullen is the CEO of Lockup Lead, a company that developed a lead paint dust tester and a method to neutralize the problem.

“It’s wonderful to give them some tools and expose this thing without investing hundreds of dollars or feeling like they have to move out of one house into another that probably has the same problem,” Cullen said. “Because lead paint was made until 1978. If you’re in a city like Louisville, a huge majority of houses were built before 1978. The key is to be able to find it.”

Kelly Smith used the Lockup Lead tester all over her house to determine where Allie would be safe.

“I was spraying everything, which helped ease my mind until we could get it fixed,” she said. “Because I knew, ‘well this spot doesn’t have lead, but over here does have lead.’ In my mind before that, the fans were just spraying lead everywhere.”

Lisa Gillespie | wfpl.org

Jonathan Smith tests for lead in his Germantown home.

In 2016, almost 8,000 children in Louisville were tested for lead. Almost 12 percent of those kids had elevated lead levels. And almost half of the 924 children who tested positive lived in six ZIP codes, including the neighborhoods of Portland, Shawnee, Park Hill, downtown, Beechmont and Parkland.

Germantown, where the Smiths live, isn’t included in the list of those high-risk neighborhoods but it does have many old homes.

Cullen said even though it’s common knowledge that lead paint is bad, many parents don’t worry about children living in an older home.

“The old method of thinking that its kids picking up paint chips and eating them – ‘if we don’t see paint chips, it must be OK,’” Cullen said. “But as they realize, those paint chips turn to dust and it’s a matter of a kid being tall enough to put her hands on a windowsill and get dust on their hands and putting that hand in their mouth.”

Lisa Gillespie | wfpl.org

A door in the Smiths home. The red streaks indicate the presence of lead-based paint.

The City of Louisville gives Cullen’s lead paint testers to local nonprofits to distribute to mostly lower-income households. And Cullen recently conducted a pilot project for the city, going out to abandoned homes marked for demolition. He treated the outside of these houses, and the soil, with a lead paint neutralizer. The idea was to keep the lead paint dust from flying everywhere when a house was demolished.

It was so successful that Cullen is now in talks with the city to use the neutralizer on vacant properties. Lawns will also be treated to keep lead dust from spreading to neighbor’s yards.

The majority of the vacant homes are also in the parts of Louisville with the highest rates of children with lead in their blood, including Russell, Shawnee, Portland and Old Louisville.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.