Life after lead poisoning: one family’s story

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Mary Anne Degenhart holds pictures of her and her son Joseph playing in the park. The photos were taken on the day that they brought Joseph home from the hospital. (Paige Pfleger/WHYY)

Mary Anne Degenhart holds pictures of her and her son Joseph playing in the park. The photos were taken on the day that they brought Joseph home from the hospital. (Paige Pfleger/WHYY)

When the Degenharts bought their house, they knew it would be a fixer-upper. But they didn’t know that it would land their son, Joseph, in the hospital. 

The Degenhart’s home in Collingswood, New Jersey is filled with charm — old, hardwood floors, beautiful molding, a little, black dog running around named Rio, and a stew simmering on the stove.

Mary Anne and her husband bought the house – two-stories tall and nestled on a corner lot – back in 1996. They knew it would be a fixer-upper, but they didn’t know that it would land their son, Joseph, in the hospital with lead poisoning. 

The couple was told that the place was filled with lead paint, like many old homes. They went about removing it, chipping it from windowsills and walls. They knew to clean up, too, making sure that no lead paint chips were left behind in case baby Joseph found them.

They thought they were very careful, which was why they were surprised to get a call from the doctor — Joseph, who just had his one year checkup, had high levels of lead in his blood. The doctor who got the results thought they must have been a mistake, so they took Joseph in for another reading. 

“The next day I remember was the Collingswood book festival. I remember we got the call while we were kind of on pins and needles,” Mary Anne Degenhart said. 

The doctor told them they needed to get Joseph to the hospital immediately. 

Joseph spent 11 days in the hospital being treated for lead poisoning with a chelation treatment, which binds to the lead and removes it through the urine. 

When they could finally go home, the work was hardly over. 

“I was definitely worried about the long-term affects,” Mary Anne said. “Once this happened, we did some research and it was pretty scary.”

Joseph had to get blood work every month for four years. Tests discovered that he was behind developementally, so caseworkers came out and worked with him two or three times a week. He had a speech therapist.

Luckily, after about a year of therapy, he was back to where he should have been. 

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Joseph plays with a lightsaber in his room. It’s the same room that he contracted lead poisoning from when he was a baby. (Paige Pfleger/WHYY)

Today, Joseph is 13 years old. He was just reading a book about Flint, Michigan for school when he heard about the lead problems there. 

“I started thinking of all the people,” Joseph said, “and feeling that they should have their nice place back…that they don’t deserve to go through the same experience that me and many other people have gone through.”

He decided that he’s going to donate some of the money he earned babysitting to Flint. 

Hear the Degenhart’s tell their story above.

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