Months later, lead paint chips remain in Durham front yards

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — It’s a mess that could be hazardous to kids’ health, but no one is cleaning it up.

Homeowners recently reached out to CBS North Carolina because lead-based paint chips from their neighbors’ house have been scattered all over their yard — and have stayed there for months.

Lead’s health risks are well-known, but it’s still difficult to force someone to clean it up.

The chips have been falling from a nearby home for more than six months.

“At the end of the day, when I was looking on my front porch, I noticed there was something white that caught my eye,” said Holly Dwan.

A closer look showed paint chips from the house next door, scattered across her lawn.

Two doors down, Tiffany Graves was finding the same thing on the other side of the flaking house.

“Visible gray lead paint chips and they’re all over,” she said.

A crew had been power washing the house, which sent the paint chips flying.

“We took appropriate steps to avoid lead exposure, and then all of a sudden it was thrust in our laps,” Dwan said.

Dwan has four children. Graves has three. They knew the risks old paint can cause and were immediately concerned.

“It was terrifying,” Dwan said.

Working with an organization called Peach Durham, they got tests done.

Lenora Smith found elevated lead levels — higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency allows. At Graves’ house, those levels even continued inside her front door.

“You can see the pieces moving in the wind. They just fall off,” Smith said. “How do we protect the children from accessing that lead dust?”

The two women found that doing that would be much more difficult than they ever expected.

Dwan took her children to the doctor for blood work. Her youngest child, Lucy, tested positive for lead.

Even though there’s no safe level for lead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the level of concern to be 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

Lucy tested at 2.1 micrograms per deciliter.

“Everyone would be jumping up and down saying this needs to be fixed immediately,” Graves said. “There would be all kinds of ramifications. But, until our children get sick, no one will do anything.”

The Mayo Clinic has found kids under 6 years old are especially vulnerable to lead paint poisoning.

It “can severely affect mental and physical development” and “at very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal,” the clinic says.

Dwan put up a sign on her fence. It reads “Caution. Lead paint. Do not walk in driveway.”

Dwan and Graves have contacted local, state and federal regulators, but six months later, the paint is still sitting there.

“Every day that this sits, there’s the potential for someone to get exposed,” Dwan said.

City officials are tying to force the owners of the home that’s losing the paint to clean up that property. But, the city housing code doesn’t allow the city to force them to clean up Dwan’s and Graves’ properties.

The state has the power to cite the contractor that did the water blasting. But it can’t mandate cleanup unless a child living in the home tests positive for elevated lead levels.

The state handles lead-based paint hazard management in lieu of the EPA.

“Since July, the condition of the house has only deteriorated,” Dwan said.

CBS North Carolina was on hand in December, when Graves and Dwan took the homeowners to court.

Roderick Barbee and Carl Richardson had previously been renting the home out, but are now trying to sell it.

“We are in the process of getting everything rectified,” Richardson said.

“We’re not delaying the process. The painters cannot move forward until they get approval from the EPA,” Barbee said.

The state keeps a list of companies certified to do lead abatement on its website, but the homeowners said any painter would have to wait for EPA approval.

For now, a judge has ordered them to find someone to do the work and to hold off on selling the house.

Dwan and Graves don’t want to move forward with cleaning the paint out of their yards until the paint is off of their neighbors’ home.

“That amount of peeling paint releases chips and dust daily,” Dwan said.

Ultimately, they want regulations to change so that other people don’t have to experience what they have. They worry that if it takes a lawsuit to force any action on such problems, homeowners who can’t afford legal action would be stuck in such a situtation. For now,t hey just want to get their lives back to normal.

Dwan looks forward to pulling the caution sign down and getting back to playing in the front yard with her kids again.

“They understand that it’s very dangerous,” Dwan said. “They don’t understand why the situation still exists.” :08

Dwan expects it to cost about $20,000 to tear out the grass and soil and clean up every part of her property that’s been affected by the lead paint.

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