Tuesday, September 4, 2001
Wesley Sirchazz "Chaz" Truesdell may be a symbol of a growing environmental concern in South Florida -- lead poisoning. And he's only 4 years old.
Last year, routine preschool entrance tests showed Chaz with elevated lead levels in his blood. Now his family is suing the landlord of the Coconut Grove apartment where Chaz lived with his mother, Leona Walker.
The suit contends that David Blumenthal, owner of a four-unit apartment building, failed to maintain the unit in a safe condition and didn't alert tenants about possible lead hazards. As a result, the suit contends, Chaz has lowered intelligence, delayed development, exhibits anti-social behavior and suffers from health and immune system damage.
The lawsuit has a dual purpose, said attorney John Leighton. The first is to get medical care for Chaz, and the second is to put attention on lead poisoning.
"Let's get this problem addressed in the community where there's old, lead-based paint. Let's get it addressed and cleaned up," he said.
Property owner Blumenthal would not comment about the lawsuit, he said, because he hasn't retained a lawyer yet.
"If counsel gives me permission, I'll be happy to talk," Blumenthal said. "I don't believe that any lead poisoning occurred at the unit in question."
Blumenthal did say the apartment had been "completely remodeled and repainted since lead paint was taken off the market.'' He could not recall the year of the remodeling.
Family members say the boy sees a pediatrician each week. Two other days each week he sees therapists to strengthen his speech and motor skills.
They're seeking damages to cover Chaz's medical and therapy costs.
In his short life, he has battled asthma, bronchitis and scarlet fever. His attention span is almost nil, and he mumbles single words, seemingly in a language that at times no one understands. His big brother doubts that even Chaz understands.
"This kid can't make full sentences. He can't," said older brother Jason Walker, who sought legal advice earlier this year. Walker, chief of staff to Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton, insists that since his birth in 1997, Chaz received constant attention and nurturing from family members. But they didn't connect Chaz's frequent health and development challenges with other factors.
"We thought he was just slow," said Deirdre Austin, a cousin who takes care of the boy while Leona Walker is in treatment for crack cocaine addiction.
Walker said she did not use drugs after she learned she was pregnant. Attorney Leighton said Chaz's symptoms point to lead poisoning.
"This is a child who was poisoned by lead. There's no question this child has lead in his system," Leighton said.
No other family in the apartment complex has children, the Walker family says.
During a recent visit with a reporter at Jason Walker's Grove home, Chaz fidgeted in his mother's arms or played with his fingers. Simple questions like, "How are you doing?" went unanswered. Asked what he was studying at school, Chaz replied, "Fun." [page 2]