A 16-year-old Central Washington boy was exposed to high levels of lead from a strange source: sheepskin rugs he slept with at night. State health and environment officials helped unravel the mystery.
A 16-year-old Central Washington boy is recovering from years of exposure to toxic levels of lead from an unlikely source: two sheepskin rugs he’d slept with since kindergarten.
Jake Wood, of Benton City, has posted blood-lead levels at least 12 times higher than the federal level for action, a condition that likely caused irreversible learning disabilities, speech problems and medical issues.
“He was poisoned for so long,” said Brandilyn Wood, 45, Jake’s mother. “He’ll never get that back.”
Jake’s case is coming to light now amid renewed concerns about lead in local drinking water and the continuing crisis in Flint, Mich. Brandilyn Wood said she decided to share her family’s experience to emphasize the need for lead testing and for prompt investigation and action when levels are high.
No one knew Jake had been exposed to lead until April 2014, when his mother insisted on testing. It took more than a year after that — including the family’s move to a new house — for Washington state investigators to figure out what was causing the ongoing contamination.
When investigators, frustrated for lack of answers, finally pointed a lead-detecting gun at the sheepskins on Jake’s bed, the sensor lit up.
One posted a reading of 15,215 parts per million of lead, state health-department records show. The other hit 21,760 parts per million. The federal limit for lead allowed in products for children 12 and younger is 100 parts per million.
“A sheepskin is a totally unusual source. It’s not at all what we expect,” said Lauren Jenks, director of environmental public health sciences for the Washington State Department of Health (DOH). “I’m super proud of them for just being creative and going through everything.”
Usually, high lead levels are caused by more common sources: lead in paint, dust, soil or lead tracked home from a parent’s job.
Jake’s exposure likely dates back a decade, when Wood said she bought two sheepskin rugs at an antique sale. She and her husband, Frank Wood, 48, a heavy-equipment operator, had gotten similar rugs for their three older children.
“We’d given all the kids sheepskins,” she said. “They all had snuggies.”
Jake said he loved his sheepskins and slept with them nightly.
“They were soft,” he recalled.
Jake’s learning troubles started at about the same time, his mother said.
“He started mixing up his colors. He couldn’t tell the difference between pink and red,” she said.
He was placed on a special-education assistance plan in first grade and assessed by a school psychologist, who suggested he had some symptoms of attention-deficit disorder, Wood said. Jake was evaluated by other school officials during the next several years. They all said he had speech, reading and cognitive problems.
“Nothing was said about lead,” Wood said.
Finally getting the test
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Children in the U.S. are not routinely tested for lead, except toddlers ages 1 and 2 covered by the federal Medicaid program.
Blood-lead levels in U.S. children have plunged dramatically since the 1970s because of bans on leaded gasoline and on lead in most paint, two primary sources. Targeted testing for children most at risk of exposure is more cost effective than universal testing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Jake might have qualified as a high-risk child, because his family lived for a dozen years in a rental house in Richland, Wash., built in 1941. Houses built before 1950 or those built before 1978 and recently remodeled are considered risky.
Wood said she asked doctors for tests of Jake’s blood during his childhood, but didn’t know to ask specifically for a blood-lead test.
It wasn’t until 2014, when she read a 2007 Seattle Times story about lead poisoning, that Wood requested the test.
The results came back within days. Jake’s blood-lead level was at 47 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood — two points above the CDC’s bar for immediate medical attention.
The agency instructs public health officials to consider action if a child’s level is at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter.
“They told me we need to have him in the emergency room today,” said Wood.
In Washington, health officials have recorded just 16 cases of kids with levels above 45 micrograms per deciliter since 1999, about one per year.
“It’s really unusual to see levels that high nowadays in the United States,” said Dr. Catherine Karr, director of the University of Washington’s pediatric environmental health unit, who treated Jake.
After a series of missteps, Wood said, Jake was started on chelation therapy with a drug called succimer, or Chemet. It binds with lead in the bloodstream so that both substances can be excreted by the kidneys.
Wood said she wanted her son to be hospitalized, but doctors didn’t respond quickly or thoroughly enough.
“No other parent should have to feel like they’re alone. No other child should have to wait so long,” she said.
But Karr said the most urgent concern was finding the source of lead exposure — and removing it.
“Chelation doesn’t do you a bit of good if there’s ongoing exposure,” she said. “We have to be sure that a child is in a place that doesn’t contribute to high lead levels.”
Investigators from state health and ecology departments and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were called in.
They found high lead levels in the Richland rental. “Everything was hot,” Wood recalled.
So, the family put most of their belongings in storage and moved to a friend’s place in Spokane. The sheepskins stayed with Jake.
After the move, Jake’s blood-lead levels kept climbing, rising as high as 64 micrograms per deciliter and stumping doctors.
State investigators scoured the new place, finding nothing — until they turned the lead-detecting gun on the sheepskins and discovered the alarming results.
“It’s a huge relief to know what was causing it,” said Wood, who has since moved to Benton City.
Health officials said they don’t know how the rugs were contaminated, though it may have been by something spilled on them years ago.
“It makes sense now”
Jake continued chelation therapy to remove lead from his blood. Today, his lead levels remain in the low to mid-30s. It will take years, even decades, for the heavy metal to leach out of his bones and tissues, doctors said.
Lingering lead exposure causes reductions in IQ points, as well as learning, behavior and physical problems, including cramps and headaches, several studies show.
Jake said he’s glad, at least, to have an explanation for his struggles in school.
“It makes sense now,” he said. “Reading or math is harder for me.”
He’s attending Richland High School and said he hopes to one day become a professional welder.
After the source was found, state health workers felt sad about taking away Jake’s sheepskins, Jenks said. They took up a collection and bought a new one, a larger rug that tested free of lead.
“We had understood it was kind of a comfort object for him,” Jenks explained.
But Brandilyn Wood was less than enthused about the gift, which serves only as a reminder of her son’s ordeal.
“It’s in a bag out in the garage,” she said. “What am I supposed to do with it?”