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Part 3: Chipping Away At Lead In San Antonio One Home At A Time

Diana Benavidez stands in front of her San Antonio home as city employees perform lead assessment and removal.

Lead is a powerful toxin that is especially harmful to children. Decades ago, the element was banned from paint, gasoline and water pipes, but it continues to be a hazard.

The City of San Antonio is trying to fix the lead problem, one house at a time.

It’s a hot July afternoon, but a crew of workmen aren’t slowing down as they scrape away layers of old paint and brush a fresh white coat onto a house in San Antonio’s near Southside.

Homeowner Diana Benavidez says this work was long overdue.

“They’re scraping it because it looked like I had potato chips as painting,” she says.

Benavidez lives here with her daughter. From time to time, small children also visit the household.

The house, built in 1923, needs a lot of work. Benavidez lives on a fixed income and can't afford the repairs.

“Being that I’m on Social Security and my daughter is on SSI [Supplemental Security Income]. It’s very hard for us,” she says.

Fortunately for Benavidez, the City of San Antonio was awarded a $3.4 million federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes.

“We do about 100 homes a year,” says Myrna Esquivel, coordinator for the City of San Antonio Department of Planning and Community Development's Green and Healthy Homes initiative.

The program performs a home lead assessment, then removes or seals in the old lead paint while also paying for a hotel for the family during the process. Not every home gets the full treatment.

"It’s not always a complete paint job or a window replacement,” says Esquivel. "Every house is a little different, but the purpose is to address the lead hazard."

The family must meet certain requirements to qualify for lead decontamination.

“They have a house built before 1978. They have a child under the age of six – whether there’s a child that lives there or visits. So we get a lot of grandparents' homes, too, that we address," Esquivel says. "They have to be low income."

At the Benavidez house, the lead contamination was traced back to old paint. Lead in paint was banned in 1978. Almost 40 years later, the legacy of lead paint haunts older neighborhood like this one.

After filing an open records request with the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, Texas Public Radio found that there are 12 zip codes in San Antonio where children are testing positive for lead poisoning at a higher percentage than the national average.

In 2016, five percent of the children who were screened in zip code 78204 tested positive for lead poisoning – 5 micrograms of lead of higher per deciliter of blood. At this level, federal guidelines urge public health action. Zip code 78204 has twice the national average of 2.5 percent. Two others – 78201 and 78212 – had four times the national average.

Looking at the zip code data, it’s clear that lead is a highly localized problem in San Antonio. It appears to be tied to the older homes.

Willie Villarreal, senior assessor for the city's Planning and Community Development Department, says they frequently find lead dust in older-style windows.

“Old wooden sash windows that are operable – going up and down – creates lead dust," he says. "That dust on windowsills and the floors right beneath it are normally very high [in lead content].”

Since the San Antonio program began 17 years ago, it has remediated over a thousand homes. Little by little chipping away at a massive problem - it adds up.

For homeowner Diana Benavidez, this program is a lifesaver.

“Probably my house would have fallen apart," she says. "I was very concerned."

Benavidez says that without the old family house, she and her daughter would be homeless. Now, the homestead is lead safe and ready to provide many more years of shelter.

"No more chips," she says.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi