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Ayden Jones sits for a photo in his living room. (Andrea Morales/MLK50)

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Ayden Can’t Speak. Lead Poisoning is Probably to Blame.

Most children suffer milder effects, but their brains aren’t unscathed


 

This story was originally published by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Subscribe to their newsletter here.

 

Dre Jones remembers watching his wife cry in the passenger seat of his GMC Envoy as they drove their 4-year-old son the 70 miles from their Dyersburg home to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

He can still see the inside of the emergency department and smell the alcohol swab the nurse used to prepare his son’s hand for an IV. 

“I had to hold him to keep him still while they were doing it because he was fighting and crying,” Jones said.


Jones’ son, Ayden, was diagnosed with severe lead poisoning in August 2019. The current federal standard for concern is 3.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of a child’s blood. Ayden’s blood level measured 72 micrograms per deciliter.

Now 8, Ayden doesn’t talk. At school, he flips desks when frustrated and doesn’t play with other kids. Lead seems to have swung his brain’s development far off the typical course. 

Hundreds of Memphis-area kids are diagnosed with lead poisoning each year, according to state data. While almost all suffer much milder effects than Ayden, their brains aren’t unscathed. Kids exposed to lead perform worse in school and are somewhat more likely to encounter learning disabilities and major mental health issues.

While Ayden’s case is far from the norm, it is a clear picture of the ways lead threatens West Tennessee’s children. 

‘Like turning off a light switch’

On Jones’ phone is a video of a 2-year-old Ayden, captured more than two years before his lead diagnosis. 

In the video, Ayden shows off his ability to wave and say “hey.” A few moments later, he tells the camera goodbye. He’s giggling throughout.

As far as his parents could tell, Ayden’s brain was developing normally until the fall of 2016 — about nine months into living in a new rental home.

That fall, his parents started to observe little regressions. His mother noticed he would no longer grab the dustpan for her when she was cleaning. His father noticed he’d started running around the kitchen when hungry instead of saying “eat eat” like he had been.

Always bouncing around the house, he seemed less and less able to control himself. He stopped talking in short sentences and asking questions. He stopped saying “momma” or “dada” or anything at all.

“It’s almost like turning off a light switch,” Dre Jones said. “That’s kind of what happened with him.”

The first time his mother, Bianca, asked Ayden’s pediatrician about the regressions, she was told he would “come around.” When he didn’t, the pediatrician referred him to a child psychiatrist in Memphis, but it took a year to get an appointment. When the appointment finally arrived, the psychiatrist diagnosed Ayden with ADHD and autism. Neither the pediatrician nor the psychiatrist suggested testing him for lead poisoning, Dre Jones said.


Ayden checks on his sister in the living room during a moment at home. (Andrea Morales/MLK50)

In recent years, pediatricians have become less alert to lead’s threat, meaning they test far fewer children than they should, according to Michelle Miller, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes.

While it’s possible Ayden’s brain would have developed atypically even without lead exposure, there’s little doubt that lead played a role given his extreme levels, according to Aaron Reuben, a clinical psychology researcher at Duke University. 

In kids whose brains would have developed normally otherwise, lead can cause abnormalities. And in kids who already would have encountered neurological disorders, lead can exacerbate the problems, Reuben said.

Whichever boat Ayden was in, he would have been better off if his pediatrician had tested him. His parents could have moved from their rental house, which they would later learn had dangerous lead levels in the paint and dirt. 

If you have kids under 6 who either live in or regularly visit a home, daycare or preschool built before 1978, please have them tested for lead poisoning. To schedule a free test, call the Shelby County Health Department at 901-222-9582 or contact your child’s pediatrician. If you’re not sure when your home was built, it is usually listed on the Shelby County Assessor of Property website and Realtor.com.

The State of Tennessee recommends — but does not mandate — that all children have their blood lead level tested when they’re 1 and 2. This is especially important for children living in a house built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the 10 states that mandate testing, about 30% of children under 6 are tested each year, according to a 2017 report. In Dyer County and Tennessee as a whole, only about 17% of kids were tested last year.

Two brutal days


The Joneses lived in this old Dyersburg home for three years until they learned it was probably poisoning their son. (Andrea Morales/MLK50)

In August 2019, two and a half years after Ayden’s parents noticed him developing atypically, his mom watched her son put his mouth on a doorknob with peeling paint. When she looked at his tongue, she saw a paint chip dissolving on top of it. She tried to grab it but couldn’t.

She started Googling to see if she should worry. The online descriptions of lead paint’s effects seemed to match her son’s symptoms exactly — hyperactivity and speech delays.

“The (listed) side effects of the lead was basically (describing) him,” she said.

She called his pediatrician’s office, asked if he could be tested for lead and was told to bring him by the next day. 

The night before he was tested, Dre and Bianca Jones sat on their couch, continuing to search the internet about lead poisoning and crying. Before, it seemed likely their son’s challenges were caused by genetics or something else out of their control. That night, Bianca remembers starting to blame herself. She realized the rental home she and Dre had chosen could have poisoned their child.

The following day, the test found shockingly high levels of lead in Ayden’s blood. The doctor told the couple he’d schedule an appointment at Le Bonheur for later that week, but the Joneses decided to drive the 70 miles that night and wait in the emergency room. 

Once at Le Bonheur, doctors started giving Ayden chelation therapy, a measure that’s reserved for extreme cases of blood poisoning.  


“Alligatoring” is the term for a likely sign of lead paint. It wrinkles and cracks in a scaly pattern, seen here on the window sill of the home. (Andrea Morales/MLK50)

For a week, the Joneses lived at Le Bonheur. And even when they were discharged, they couldn’t go home. A state health official monitoring Ayden’s case told Jones he couldn’t, under any circumstances, move his son back into the house that had likely poisoned him. They moved in with Bianca’s mother for two weeks before finding another place they could afford.

Chelation dropped Ayden’s blood lead level from 72 into the 50s. Jones and his wife had to rely on time and nutrition to further lower it, adding broccoli and other vegetables into their son’s diet. Studies show that children eating less fat and fewer calories tend to have lower blood lead levels than those living in similarly high-lead environments. Iron, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin C may also help.

Of course, the lead has already done most of its damage. The toxin is most damaging to the brains of kids under 6 — with the danger increasing the younger the child is. But in the more than three years since chelation, Ayden’s blood lead level has fallen to about 15 — a much safer level. 

Moving forward

As Ayden’s lead levels have dropped, his behavior has improved. Now, he loves to twirl his mother’s clothes, interact with adults, and play with his two younger siblings, born in the years after his lead-poisoning diagnosis. He has a skinny frame and a wide smile. At home, he’s a “sweet” and relaxed child, Bianca Jones said.

When away from his parents, though, Ayden’s behavior has continued to be disruptive and unpredictable, especially if he’s missed a dose of his medicine.

At school, he will still sometimes run circles around his special education classroom, Dre Jones said. He’s bitten his teachers and flipped desks. His teachers have struggled to teach him much.

Studies have shown that students with even moderately elevated blood lead levels are more likely to perform poorly in school or fail to graduate. One study found that 20% of kids with blood lead levels over 25 micrograms per deciliter require special education. 


Dre Jones embraces his son, Ayden, while hanging out at home. (Andrea Morales/MLK50)

Dre Jones worries about his son’s future. For now, he and Bianca Jones are able to protect their son and provide him with a happy home. But if something were to happen to them, he doubts Ayden would be taken care of adequately. 

To better set Ayden up for his future — and to compensate the family for the suffering they’ve endured — the Joneses are suing their old landlord. Though two previous lawyers have withdrawn from his case, he’s hopeful his current attorney will be able to bring him some measure of justice.

He’s angry any landlord would rent a house so dangerous to children. “(That house) ended up destroying our boy’s complete personality,” Jones said.

Do you live in a home built before 1978 and have children under 6 living with you or visiting often? Call the City of Memphis Lead-Safe program at 901-636-5323 or the Shelby County Lead Hazard Control program at 901-222-7605 to see if you qualify for a free inspection — and possible renovation — of your home. To find out when your home was built, go to the Shelby County Assessor of Property website or Realtor.com.

But mostly, Jones is trying to stay upbeat for the sake of his kids, enjoying the beauty of their play together and raising awareness about lead poisoning.



Ayden and his younger brother laugh while playing together. (Andrea Morales/MLK50)

“I try to tell people about this, and they be like, ‘Naw, I don’t think that’s the case,’” Dre Jones said. “(People) act like it’s not a real thing … (or) a thing of the past. But this stuff is affecting kids today.”

In 2023, over 2,400 Tennessee kids tested positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood, a number that would likely be larger if testing rates weren’t so low. 

For many of the affected children, the consequences will be moderate — a lost IQ point or two or a slightly higher risk of heart disease later in life. 

But for some, lead’s effects will be heartbreaking.

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Jacob Steimer, MLK50: Justice through Journalism

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

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