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Phish Drummer Speaks Out About The Dangers Of Lead Poisoning

Jason DeCrow
Jon Fishman, drummer for the band Phish (seen performing here in March 2010,) became an advocate for increased awareness about the danger of lead poisoning after after learning his son had been poisoned by lead.

You might have thought lead poisoning was largely a thing of the past but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children in at least 4 million American households are still being exposed to high levels of lead.

That figure is especially concerning for areas of the country like Vermont, where there is a high concentration of older homes and buildings.

Wednesday, the city of Burlington’s Lead Program and legendary Phish drummer Jon Fishman are hosting a free preview screening of the new documentary, MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic.

Fishman, who will also be participating in a panel discussion after the film, got involved with the cause after his own young son was poisoned.

Fishman, on how he learned his son been poisoned by lead

Fishman says that while they did get the legal disclaimer that their 200-year-old farmhouse might have lead because of its age, they were not fully aware of how dangerous the situation could be.

“We took [our son] to the pediatrician for his yearly checkup,” Fishman explains. “And they told us that he had slightly elevated lead levels … We figured it must be in the house some place. We had had other renovations done and dust had been stirred up in other parts that had been disturbed. The short of it is that after further investigation we realized [lead] was in the dust.”

Fishman says at that point he removed his family from the home until the structure could be cleared of lead.

On what lead poisoning does to an individual’s health

Fishman says damage can be hard to spot, especially when individuals are still young.

“We don't really know what the damage is because the symptoms of it up [in young children],” says Fishman. “If there are damages, it would show up as delayed speech and different types of learning disabilities."

The city of Burlington’s Lead Program coordinator, Jeff Tanguay, says that because symptoms are not always readily apparent, it makes poisonings in children especially concerning.

On who is at risk  

Tanguay says it’s quite common for parents to buy older homes and fix them up without realizing they could be exposing their family to lead based paint.

Any older building could be at risk of having lead paint, and so younger inhabitants and the structure should be tested, warns Tanguay.

"You need to get your children tested." - Jeff Tanguay, program coordinator for Burlington's Lead Program

“You need to get your children tested,” says Tanguay, which requires trip to your doctor and a quick finger prick to run a blood test.

Inspecting a structure for lead can be done by a contractor or consultant, and could take anywhere from four to five hours depending on the size, says Tanguay, but will provide you exact locations for any lead-based paint in your home.

On what the state and federal government are doing to help

Vermont currently requires owners of rental property built before 1978 to inspect the building yearly according to Tanguay.

“[If they see] over a square foot of flecking paint, they need to safely fix that,” Tanguay said.

There are also laws in place that require buyers to be informed about any lead based paint, if the seller is aware of it at the time of sale. “But if a property owner hasn’t tested their property,” as Tanguay explains, “they don’t know when [to] check off the box, ‘I don’t know.”’

The special preview screening of MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic is Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 5:30 p.m. at the Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington. Tickets are free and available through the Burlington Lead Program.

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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