10/18/06 — Child treated for lead poisoning in city home

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Child treated for lead poisoning in city home

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 18, 2006 1:55 PM

No one was supposed to be living at 405 W. Mulberry St.

City officials say they had notified the landlord, Paul Bridgers of Goldsboro, that the house was dangerous -- uninhabitable because of multiple minimum housing violations that had not been corrected -- in 2004.

Doctors who recently saw a 2-year-old girl who lived there were surprised when she tested positive for lead poisoning. They did not let her go home until they knew she was safe.

Shortly after her visit to the hospital in August, Wayne County officials learned that her family lived in a home painted wall-to-wall with a lead-based product for more than two months.

It was the house on Mulberry -- the same one inspectors had instructed Bridgers not to occupy or rent out.

After their findings, Wayne County Health Department official Worth Heath concluded those doctors might have saved the child's life.

"Luckily for the child, medical attention was given early on," Heath said. "The longer they are exposed, the worse it gets. Most doctors don't put them in the hospital. So you would think the problem had to be pretty bad."

The problem was in the peeling paint that Goldsboro inspectors said had likely been chipping off the walls for years and collecting on the floors and side lawns.

Lead paint chips are dangerous in general, Heath said, but particularly so for a child.

"Little kids, they touch that dust and put their fingers in their mouth," he said. "If they eat those paint chips off the ground, it can be fatal. That's about as bad as it gets."

Goldsboro minimum housing inspector Buddy Pridgen said he wasn't surprised when he heard the news -- the house on Mulberry Street had come up in the inspections department before.

In fact, a file on the property had been awaiting official condemnation and demolition orders in a box at City Hall since November 2004, he said.

Chief Building Inspector Ed Cianfarra said the house entered Phase 1 of minimum housing in May 2004, after inspectors responded to a complaint filed by tenants on April 28 of the same year.

The initial inspection revealed holes in the floor, leaks, sills in need of major repairs and a hole in a child's bedroom ceiling big enough for pigeons to enter the dwelling.

Months went by and more letters were sent, Cianfarra added. And with each request from the city left unanswered, the home went through another phase, until it ended up in a pile of cases in the Inspections Department with the other dilapidated dwellings slated for condemnation.

"The owner made absolutely no attempt to contact this office for an inspection or make the repairs he needed to," Cianfarra said. "And the folks living there, if they do not chose to move, until we reach the point of condemnation, I can't make them move."

But when the home entered Phase 3, he sent another letter to Bridgers, this one notifying him that the house was not to be occupied.

The letter, dated Oct. 7, 2004, reads, "The building above described is unfit for human habitation ... it is unlawful for the owner of the above mentioned dwelling to rent or occupy the said dwelling for human habitation."

The condemnation wasn't made official by City Council members until Aug. 21 -- of this year -- only a few weeks after the girl had been hospitalized and county officials had gotten involved.

Cianfarra said in the close to two years in between, Bridgers had illegally rented the home out to several tenants.

"Here, we have a situation where we told the property owner that the house was not to be occupied until the repairs had been made," he said. "The gentleman then, behind our backs, moved a family in and it wasn't until months and months later that we found out about it. He moved them in there illegally."

And officials didn't find out about the most dangerous part -- the lead paint -- until after doctors diagnosed that little girl, they said. Some wonder how the didn't discover the occupancy sooner.

Cianfarra said despite tremendous efforts made by the current City Council, in the past, the Inspections Department was spread thin and funding was limited -- factors that led to delays in official condemnation of the property and the lack of personnel needed to check-up on dilapidated property owners in a more timely fashion.

"We do the very best we can on the limited resources we have to protect each one of the residents in this city," he said. "The present City Council that we have right now has gone 110 percent in their effort to clean up this city with me and my team. We have not had that concentrated effort from other councils the way we have now."

Lack of available funding for completion of all condemnations and demolitions might slow the process down, but it doesn't kill the effort, Cianfarra added -- or the vision.

"We're making progress," he said. "But we have to think about the taxpayers dollars, too. I would love to be able to get rid of all these properties. It just isn't realistic with our limited resources right now."

Despite condemnation of the property in August, City Council members granted Bridgers a six-month extension to complete repairs. To keep the extension, certain requirements set by the council were to be met.

A $12,500 bond was to be paid to cover demolition costs, an asbestos inspection and lead-paint removal and all back taxes owed had to be paid. Additionally, Bridgers was given 90 days to complete 50 percent of the repair work.

Any violation of these terms would result in termination of the extension and immediate demolition, Cianfarra said.

But when Pridgen walked around the house on Mulberry last week, lead paint chips around its perimeter concerned him. After all, repair permits had not been applied for and the clean up of the lead paint was lackluster, he said.

"Here it looks like he just painted over the old stuff," he said, pointing to an exterior wall. "And these paints chips here (on the lawn) can contaminate the soil."

Cianfarra said the work done before Tuesday -- when Bridgers picked up his work permit from City Hall -- put more people in danger.

"The Health Department said that you can't even remove that stuff without contaminating the ground," he said.

Repeated calls to Bridgers for comment were not returned.

But Cianfarra said landlords who refuse to make repairs on dilapidated properties citywide are putting lives at risk every day.

"The unscrupulous character of people of that nature makes them do anything they can to circumvent the law to make a dollar," he said.