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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

'I Actually Thought I Was Going To Lose Her': Milwaukee-Area Mother's Struggle To Escape Lead Poisoning

Dennise Honnegar
Susan Bence
Dennise Honnegar has been forced to move with her daughter Jasmine several times and sleep in her car over the last four years to keep Jasmine safe from lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning in children has been overshadowed in the Milwaukee area by the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year. However, that doesn’t mean families with lead in their homes are any less concerned. In fact, there are concerns that children forced to stay home due to COVID-19 have been at increased risk of lead poisoning.

>> Listen MKE: The Chronic Problem Of Lead Poisoning In Milwaukee

Dennise Honnegar says her daughter Jasmine was a good natured six-year-old, who loved school when they moved into a rental in West Allis.

“There was a new owner and he wanted us to clean up the whole yard,” she says.

Honnegar was happy to pitch in. She was eager to be a good tenant.

Honnegar settled Jasmine, her youngest, on the front porch with toys to keep her safely occupied. Honnegar says she had no idea lead-based paint was all over the place — inside, outside and in the soil — not until Jasmine’s next doctor visit.

Jasmine in bed during her first stay in the hospital after consuming toxic amounts of lead.
Dennise Honnegar
Jasmine in bed during her first stay in the hospital after consuming a large amount of lead paint.

The doctor routinely checked her blood lead level “because of her ADHD that she already has, they automatically test that even after the age of 4 or 5,” explains Honnegar.

The next day, even before getting the results, Honnegar knew something was terribly wrong. “I called them and I said, she’s turning blue, she’s not looking right and I’m about ready to take her to the hospital,” she says.

That’s just what she did.

“They didn’t want to tell me the lead level until I got into the room. I used to work in nursing, her lead level was 70. They took X-rays of her stomach. It was completely full of lead paint. I actually thought I was going to lose her,” says Honnegar.

Jasmine was hospitalized for a month

Jasmine now wears a helmet to protect against seizures that could happen at any moment.
Dennise Honnegar
Jasmine now wears a helmet to protect against seizures that could happen at any moment.

“She got out just before school started. She was out not even a week and she started [having] seizures. She went back into the hospital. They did more tests and the lead level is so bad, ... in her front lobe and her back lobe so she has seizures left and right. She has what they call drop seizures and grand mal seizures,” she says. “She has to wear a helmet all the time because she never knows when she’s going have it.”

Honnegar was determined to find a safe place for her family to live

“We finally moved into a place on 24th and Locust. Come to find out that place had really bad lead too,” she says.

What followed was the family staying with friends for a time, and later in a motel. Until, Honnegar says, “We found a place on 10th Street. This landlord constantly told me there is no lead in here, we’ve had it, done. Nope! We had to get out of there ASAP."

Finally, after some very dark days including sleeping in her van, she connected with local organizations that she says has set her family right.

“Community Advocates finding out we were actually sleeping in a van with child, they actually got us into the Hope House. And the Hope House program is the one that got us in here,” she says.

It’s been six months now. Honnegar has been assured by the landlord this Milwaukee bungalow is lead paint free. She admits she has a hard time believing him.

“I mean, I love the landlord I have — he says anything you need, just call me. He knows my condition, he knows my daughter, he knows the situation. But there’s still that little iffy, if, if, if, you know,” she says.

Still Honnegar worries that this bungalow could be one of 70,000-plus old Milwaukee housing stock in which drinking water is delivered through lead pipes.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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