LAWTON, Mich. (WOOD) — No one can know how the lead-tainted water flowing from Flint’s faucets will impact the lives of the children it once sustained.
What we do know is that Flint’s youngest generation will ultimately pay the highest price for the city’s water crisis.
>>Quiz: How much do you know about lead poisoning?
Lead wreaks the most devastation on the developing brains of babies and toddlers. However, the full impact of lead poisoning isn’t clear until much later in life, when victims are often forgotten by the public.
Not this time, though.
Target 8 investigators met David Brightwell and Jerry Burks in May 1998. Both were three years old and undergoing treatment for lead poisoning.
“I just want people to be aware of what can happen, because no child deserves this,” said David’s mother, Holly in 1998.
In the first 18 months of his life, David met every developmental milestone. That changed when his family moved into its first home in Lawton, west of Kalamazoo.
“At first I didn’t realize what was going on,” explained David’s mom. “He was having what they call ‘silent seizures,’ where he would stare off into space and his eyes would cross.”
The Brightwell’s dream home had created a nightmare; their son had lead poisoning.
Tests showed David had a blood lead level of 47 micrograms per deciliter when he was diagnosed in 1998. That’s two points above the critical level at which health officials recommend chelation therapy to remove lead from the blood.
David had been eating lead paint chips and breathing in lead dust in the family’s home.
“Our son has been damaged for life,” said Mike Brightwell, David’s dad. “You wonder if he’ll ever be normal.”
A year after David Brightwell’s diagnosis, another young boy’s family received the same devastating news.
Jerry Burks’ parents had never heard of lead poisoning and had no idea their toddler had been ingesting lead paint chips and dust in their Benton Harbor home.
“As a parent, it will drive you crazy because that’s all you can think, is that my baby might be brain damaged,” said Jeral Clabin, Jerry’s mom, in 1998.
Jerry’s case was particularly severe. Any blood lead level reading above five mcg/dl is considered elevated; Jerry’s blood lead level was 203 mcg/dl.
In comparison, state officials say the highest lead level they’ve confirmed in Flint children is in the 30 to 40 mcg/dl range.
“I do have to note though, I wouldn’t want to imply that there are many in the thirties,” said Jennifer Eisner, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “The majority [of Flint children with elevated blood lead levels] are in the five to 10 range,” added Eisner.
However, health officials caution that lead impacts each child differently, so what David and Jerry’s families experienced may not be the future of other families, even if their children had similar exposure levels.
>>Interactive map: Elevated blood-lead levels in your area
Bridge Magazine used 2014 data of blood lead tests on children to compile this map. Shaded are areas where more than 5 percent of tested children had elevated blood lead levels. Click on your zip code for test results.
Nearly 18 years after first telling the boys’ stories, Target 8 investigators found both of them still living in Lawton and Benton Harbor.
Jerry Burks will soon turn 21 years old.
He still lives with his parents, but attends classes at Gateway Services, a rehabilitation program in Benton Harbor that helps people with disabilities gain more independence.
“I like being at school every day,” Jerry said. “Tomorrow I have a foot doctor appointment. When I leave from the video store next Wednesday, I’ve got a dentist’s appointment right after I take the movies back,” Jerry explained.
Jerry’s mom is his legal guardian.
In a 2012 evaluation filed in probate court, social workers wrote that Jerry “currently needs direction for life and work skills approximately 80 percent of the time,” and that he still has “significant difficulties in the social and communication domain.”
But the evaluation also noted that Jerry had made “good progress” and would “work hard for praise.”
His mother is thrilled with how well Jerry is doing, despite the severity of his poisoning.
“My son has come along fantastic and I thank God for that,” said Clabin.
The doctor who treated Jerry nearly two decades ago was also pleased with his progress.
“I’m just so thankful for how he’s turned out,” said Dr. Bryan Burke, after watching video of Target 8’s visit with Jerry.
“I mean, he obviously has his problems, but his eyes are calmer. You can tell that he’s more in control of himself than he was. This is better than I had hoped because he was the most significantly lead poisoned child I’d ever seen,” Burke added.
Life has also been a struggle for David Brightwell, who is now 21 years old and living with his father in Lawton.
David’s parents recently divorced, though his mom lives just a few blocks away.
“At one time, I think he had like five doctors that he was seeing,” David’s mom recounted. “It’s been very hard, very hard. A lot of years of having many different doctors, having many different things checked out. You could just tell he wasn’t a normal kid.”
David was ultimately diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder, Tourette syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome, which is a form of autism.
David said he has always struggled to concentrate.
“A lot of times I will think of too many thoughts at once,” he explained. “I usually like to think like background music in my head to help the focus because the background music helps. [It] helps even more if you’re wearing headphones with music on.”
Tae Kwon Do has also helped.
When he was 13 years old, his parents took him off all medications and put him in Tae Kwon Do to aid him with concentration.
David has since earned a black belt and graduated from high school.
“He graduated with a regular diploma, which at one point we weren’t sure that was going to happen,” his mom said.
College is not in the picture right now, and David does not have his driver’s license.
But he recently began what he considers his first “real” job, helping children with special needs.
“He’s got the most kind heart of anybody I’ve ever known,” said his mother. “I am very proud of the man he’s become.”
Jerry Burks’ mom is proud too. He helps with laundry and dishes at home. He also has a cleaning job at a restaurant in St. Joseph.
Jerry plans to attend Gateway Services until he turns 26, at which time he will no longer be eligible for the program.
But Jerry will always have a home. His parents settled a lawsuit with the landlord of the home they rented when Jerry got lead poisoning. His mom said they used the money to buy their house so Jerry would always have place to live.
“I’m very proud of him,” said Jerry’s mom. “And as a matter of fact I’m very proud of myself because I did a lot of struggling to get my son the help he needs. And like I say, he came a long ways and I’m proud of him.”