In 2005, two of Tamara Rubin's four sons suffered from lead poisoning because of the work of a painting contractor the family had hired to renovate their home. From the moment of their diagnoses, Tamara became a lead poisoning prevention and awareness advocate, dedicating her life to help her boys and to keep other children from facing the same diagnosis. Tamara is the founder of Lead Safe America, an organization that provides emergency intervention and support to families all over the country whose children have been poisoned by lead in their homes. She has been awarded the National Healthy Homes Hero award and the Healthy Child Healthy World “Mom On A Mission” award for her efforts.
For the past year, this mom of four has been tirelessly working on a feature length documentary, "MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic," about the hidden epidemic of childhood lead poisoning in America today. Despite her insanely busy schedule, Tamara took the time to answer my questions about her mission to educate America and eradicate lead poisoning. Here's an excerpt from our interview:
Mother Nature Network: How did you connect the dots between the remodeling work done at your home and your boys' lead poisoning?
Tamra Rubin: At first, I just didn't — nobody did! The painting work started (they started prepping the surface of the exterior of my house by removing the old lead paint), and the kids started vomiting within a day. They had headaches. A.J. (who was just 3 at the time) started pressing his fingers on his forehead to deal with the pain. Avi (our 7-month-old who had been such a peaceful baby that we had dubbed him our "Buddha Baby") started acting cranky — not himself at all. He just started tasting solid foods, but suddenly completely refused and wanted to nurse constantly. There were several incidents where the kids were constipated and then woke up in the morning in a pool of feces from extreme diarrhea. Their gastrointestinal tracts were not working, but I did not understand why. I called the advice nurse, practically daily for what seemed like forever — but it was a matter of weeks — and every day got the same answer: "Don't worry, as long as they don't have a fever, I'm sure it is nothing; just keep them hydrated." Finally the headaches got worse for A.J., and he was covered in feces just one-too-many times, and I called the doctor and said "Test my kids for EVERYTHING." They did that and they were found to be in "perfect health." None of the tests came up positive — except for one … they had lead poisoning.
What made you decide to create a movie as the platform for your message?
My sons were poisoned in 2005, and my crusade started pretty much right away — talking to other parents, talking to school administrators, noticing and reporting peeling lead paint in cafés, restaurants, schools, parks, museums and other public spaces … but I kept encountering the same thing: utter resistance. I served on committees and panels and testified before the Oregon state Senate and Oregon legislature to help get the new legislation passed. I told my story on the "Today" show, in USA Today, on every other network (ABC, CBS, NBC and even FOX) when the new legislation was enacted — in an effort to help promote the importance of lead-safe work practices in renovations. I even wrote a law for the state of Oregon that, had it passed as I had written it, would have protected kids from being poisoned by existing lead hazards in schools. [It did pass, but along the way was reduced to little more than a political gesture, a mandate to create an informational website.]
What I learned was that no one seemed to care and that — even on the state level — the legislative process is just plain broken.
The misconceptions and myths that lead poisoning is a thing of the past or that it is only the problem of "poor black children living in slums" and kids "eating paint chips" were myths perpetuated by government and industry and were too hard to break or dispel in popular public perception using normal channels. (The quotes are not my words, but from interviews from my film.)
The best response and the biggest impact that I made in my advocacy work was through the high-profile media attention. [For a recent example, when the current Mother Jones cover article hit the 'Net last week, my nonprofit's site got 1,000 hits right away.] Then about two years ago, it came to me: what's the biggest media platform you can bring anything to? The movies!
Many environmental causes have had movies made about them (documentary or otherwise — think "Silkwood," "Erin Brockovich," "An Inconvenient Truth," etc.), but in the century we have known about lead poisoning there has never (yet) been a documentary feature film about lead and the impact on our children and our society. It occurred to me that this might just be the way to reach the American public, tug at their heart strings by sharing the stories of other mothers (mothers just like them) whose children have been poisoned, present all the scientific and historical evidence right from the horse's (scientist's and historian's) mouth as it were — so the facts are in front of them; show them pervasive consequences all around them — (ADD, ADHD, Asperger's and autism, learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, violent crime, etc.) and help them connect the dots that they have never considered connecting before (that living in an older house can cause lead poisoning no matter how much money you make and no matter what the color of your skin is) and that for this issue (like other issues), it is so important that we focus on learning the truth, not just the numbers and concepts certain industry-advised government officials have chosen for us to "know."
What do you see is the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Coaxing people from a position of "it's not my problem" to a place where they get "Oh My God — this has impacted my entire life and will impact the lives of millions of American children and adults for generations to come if we don't do something about it now!"
That, and funding ;-)
In noting the government and industry corruption and censorship of the message of this issue (something that has gone on for nearly a century), we made a commitment in forming my nonprofit foundation to not accept any government money. The film is an outreach and education project of the Lead Safe America Foundation. This makes things challenging — so far nearly 500 individuals have chipped in and donated a little something (and some quite a bit more than a little) to make this film possible. We're getting creative too, taking on some investors and paying generous interest — just to get it done. [ $200 buys us a day of editing, $679 gets us a backup drive for our film footage, another $200 buys us a day of graphic design, $700 buys us a day of filming (camera usage and sound). Even with heavily discounted services by very generous artists and vendors, in making a film, expenses add up.] Most of our resources have been donated and we have brought in an additional $23,000 in "investment" income. Our goal is to raise another $27,000 (either through donations or investments) to finish the project. The idea is that the film, once finished, will be sold to a distribution company and the proceeds from the sale of the film will 1. pay back the few investors we have and 2. generate an endowment for the foundation so we can continue to help families around the country (and the world) in perpetuity.
What changes do you think are necessary to prevent childhood lead poisoning in America?
There is one and only one thing that can generate the change we need on this issue: awareness. People need to "get" this issue in a way that it will not be forgotten from generation to generation. It needs to become part of the fabric of the knowledge of our society, just like virtually every American now knows that smoking is bad for you and causes cancer, every American needs to understand that lead (in any form) is poisonous and that it does not take "eating paint chips" to poison a child (that a microscopic amount of lead dust — caused by opening and closing an old window — is enough to poison a child).
What big goals are you working on this year?
That's a big question … Primarily my goal is to get a distributor for the film so that it can have the maximum impact and reach the most possible families, whatever that takes. I would like to see it in movie theaters, as having a film in theaters gives it more credibility (I think) in the eyes of the general public — that makes it a "real" film.
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