There is no safe level of lead in the human body
By PAUL KOBERSTEIN
No one would benefit from a cleanup in the Coeur d'Alene-Spokane Basin more than children, especially the smallest ones. Many residential yards throughout the upper reaches of the basin are still contaminated with high, unhealthy levels of lead dust. Soils on playgrounds at schools in Kellogg and Osburn are still riddled with lead.
Alarming numbers of pre-school children continue to suffer from dangerously high lead blood levels, despite assurances from Idaho's governor and politicians that there's no public health emergency.
Studies show lead poisoning at levels seen in the Silver Valley produce permanent, irreversible damage to brain functions, and pervasive deficits in academic skills. Very young children are vulnerable because lead interferes with brain development, which occurs most rapidly in children of that age, and no amount may be safe from toxic effects. "The lowest blood lead concentration associated with adverse effects has not yet been defined," says Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a nationally recognized childhood lead expert at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati.
Because there have never been any scientific studies of childhood lead poisoning in the basin, no one knows with any precision how many children are or have been poisoned.
And yet last November, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said the children of the Coeur d'Alene River Basin no longer face a health emergency from lead poisoning. His interpretation of new blood lead screening data led him to urge the Environmental Protection Agency to drop its plans to clean up lead in and around all contaminated residential property. Instead, he called for a scaled-down cleanup coupled with increased spending for economic development.
"Blood lead monitoring has shown a great improvement this year. This is great news," he said last November in Wallace, Idaho. "We never want to have an Idaho child with an elevated blood lead level. But it is very important that we all recognize that we do not have a public health emergency in the Coeur d'Alene Basin."
The data was based on blood samples taken from children in Silver Valley communities around Wallace and Kellogg. These samples seem to indicate a small reduction in blood levels from previous years in communities in the basin. But the samples are limited in number and do not represent children in the community as a whole.
"Screenings of this type should be considered a 'snap shot' at one specific point in time," says Dr. John Rosen, a nationally recognized children's health expert in New York who is a technical adviser to the Silver Valley People's Action Committee. "Screenings of this type do not determine the actual prevalence of lead poisoning in any community.
Marc Stifelman, the EPA's lead expert, has warned against drawing conclusions about the data Kempthorne has cited. "It's not a study, it's not a survey, it's just a service," he said.
Health experts say that to determine the true prevalence of lead poisoning, one must choose a sample of children that is representative of the whole community. The study's design must consider such factors as age and season of the year, and be tightly controlled, Rosen says.
Kempthorne and other leaders seem so eager to dismiss health concerns in the basin that the Spokane-based Lands Council and the Sierra Club's Idaho and eastern Washington chapter accuse them of knowingly putting children at risk for lead poisoning while allowing mining companies to dodge clean-up costs.
Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane physician and conservation chair for the Sierra Club's Northern Rockies Chapter, says Kempthorne and the others are relying on data "that has no real usefulness in determining whether or not remediation has been successful. There has yet to be an epidemiological, longitudinal study of blood lead levels in the Coeur d'Alene Basin."
Medical and lead experts contacted by Cascadia Times emphatically say that despite what Kempthorne says, a serious health problem continues to exist in the basin, though conditions are significantly improved from a decade ago before the initial Superfund cleanup began. These experts say the health problems will persist until the area is fully cleaned up.
They say a more serious gap in knowledge about the health in the basin is the lack a full-blown epidemiological study of children and adults that would pinpoint the number of people affected by lead poisoning and charts their progress over time.
Many experts say a more accurate picture of health problems in the basin can be drawn from the Human Health Risk Assessment done in 2000 by the state of Idaho and the EPA. This study shows that as many as 29.5 percent of the young children in the basin suffer from lead poisoning.
"From a public health point of view, even as a snap shot survey, that can be considered to be an epidemic," says Rosen. This study was based on a model that considers such things as lead concentrations in soils around homes, the type of lead compounds detected and their behavior in the body.
This study also shows that 80 percent of the cases of children with high blood lead levels live in homes with high concentrations of lead in yard soils. The other 20 percent of the cases might also be attributable to lead in paint, Stifelman said. He says the full number of contaminated yards in the basin is unknown; only one in five have been tested.
The rate of lead poisoning cases among children in the basin is far higher than the national average among rural communities similar to those in the basin. In fact, it is comparable to lead-poisoning rates typical among the nation's most polluted inner-city neighborhoods, Stifelman said.
Kempthorne and business interests may have a financial motive for dismissing the health risk to children in the basin. They fear that elevated blood lead levels would trigger a "Superfund" cleanup throughout the basin, carrying with it a negative stigma that allegedly discourages investment. They worry that tourism plans for the basin, including those of Duane Hagadone, owner of the Coeur d'Alene Resort and newspapers in the basin, might falter in the wake of negative publicity. Among their plans is a scheme to allow riverboat gambling on the lake.
Many business and government leaders in the Coeur d'Alene River basin agree with Kempthorne, including Idaho Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs, a former emergency room doctor in Coeur d'Alene. "The valley is not perfect, but there's not a spot on the globe that doesn't have problems."
Ron Roizen, a Wallace resident hired by Shoshone County to review the EPA's plan, claims the EPA's plan to spend $92 million removing lead from homes, yards, parks and playgrounds would benefit only "between seven and 13 basin children (the EPA) believes are at statistical risk from lead. The bottom just fell out of EPA's claim that a health risk exists in the basin."
In fact, the EPA claims that the number of poisoned children is far higher, though not even the EPA knows the exact number.
Roizen is also among many local residents, leaders and school officials who claim that people cannot absorb the type of lead compounds in the basin's soils. The EPA agrees that the type of lead compounds commonly found in the Silver Valley are harder for the body to absorb than other types of lead compounds. But the EPA says its models take the differences into account. They show, for example, that small children absorb lead into their bodies far more readily than older ones.
Roizen, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, is among many self-designated lead experts in the area who oppose the EPA cleanup. He is a member of the Shoshone Natural Resource Coalition, an organization funded by the mining industry that has already filed suit to block the EPA cleanup plan. (Other plaintiffs are the cities of Smelterville, Wallace, Pinehurst and Mullan.)
Even if the data quoted by Kempthorne and other anti-EPA activists were statistically valid, it still would show that average blood lead levels among children in the basin are statistically no better than they were in 1996. The data would also indicate other serious problems, such as:
n 10.9 percent of pre-school children (under 5 years of age) had blood lead poisoning, defined as levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter (one-tenth liter) of blood. Children at this age are more readily exposed to lead, as almost everything they grasp goes into their mouths. They may also be more vulnerable to lead's toxic effects, as their brains and nervous systems are developing most rapidly.
n Average blood lead levels were highest among 3-year-olds. The 3 and 4-year-old group also had the highest maximum readings. By touting data that include older children whose blood lead levels are typically less, Kempthorne and others ignore lead poisonings among the younger, more at risk, children.
n Within the existing Superfund area in and around Kellogg, more than 7 percent had blood lead levels of 10 or higher. The most heavily poisoned in this group were the 2-year-olds, of which more than 12 percent had elevated levels.
Lanphear, the epidemiologist in Cincinnati, told Cascadia Times that further studies of children in the area are probably not necessary. "We know enough now that we need to take action," he said.
The EPA is most concerned with blood lead levels of greater than 10, but new peer-reviewed studies raise alarms about lesser levels, Lanphear says. He was the lead researcher on one such study released in 2001 that showed there may be no safe concentration of the metal in blood.
"There appear to be adverse effects even below 5 micrograms per deciliter," Lanphear says.
The study, "Subclinical Lead Toxicity in U.S. Children and Adolescents," found "deleterious and persistent effects of low-level lead exposure on brain function, such as lowered intelligence, behavioral problems, and diminished school performance."
The only way to make the basin safe for children appears to be removing the lead from their environment. The EPA plans to reduce lead contamination to 1000 parts per million. While those levels represent an overall improvement, they may not be enough to protect public health. At other lead-contaminated sites around the country, the EPA has reduced lead levels to 400 parts per million.
Lanphear says a new study in Utah shows that removing lead from soil around homes reduces lead levels in children's blood. According to the study's abstract, for children less than 3 years old, blood lead levels dropped by 3.5 micrograms per deciliter for every 1000 part per million reduction in soil lead concentrations. Details of that study have not yet been published, but Lanphear shared the study's abstract with Cascadia Times.
Lanphear says that lead levels revealed in the sampling data can significantly reduce IQ.
Other data confirms lead-related health problems persist in the basin. The Idaho Department of Health reports that substantially more babies born in Shoshone County have low birth weights when compared with all other parts of Idaho. Studies show that lead poisoning can cause low birth weights. Low weights at birth are often associated with other health problems.
In January 2002, eight current or former basin residents filed a class action suit seeking compensation and medical treatment for about 100,000 people allegedly poisoned by the lead.
"While the Environmental Protection Agency looks at the long-range cleanup, we need to find ways to help stop the damage of the lead contamination now," said Steve Berman, the plaintiffs' attorney from Seattle law firm Hagens Berman. "We must help parents identify kids in danger of reduced intelligence, delayed development and a myriad of other health problems caused by the contamination."
Plaintiffs Arden and Rita Bornitz live outside St. Maries, Idaho, about 18 miles from the Bunker Hill Superfund cleanup site. Their three children all have elevated lead levels, possibly from playing along the contaminated Union Pacific rail line (see story Page 16). Other plaintiffs include Rog and Toni Hardy, who live along the rail line.
"Like all parents, we want the best for our children," Arden Bornitz said. "Our kids are suffering profound health damages that we believe are tied directly to lead poisoning. We know what we are facing and are doing everything we can to help our children, but we believe there are hundreds of families that have no idea that their kids are in danger of these health risks."
"For nearly one hundred years, the mining companies created a legacy of illness for our children," he said. "As parents, we must hold them accountable today."
The Bornitz's youngest son, Kyler Bornitz, had blood levels showing a lead content of 27 micrograms per deciliter by the time he was 18 months old. According to the complaint, some parents have suffered significant economic losses in efforts to safeguard their children.
Tina and Harve Paddock, former Wallace residents, found lead levels topping 2,600 parts per million in their home. The EPA removed more than a foot of topsoil from their yard with levels as high as 2,900 parts per million lead, leaving yet more contamination below a landscape barrier. Interiors were not addressed at all. Before they purchased their home, a state of Idaho study in 1996 found elevated lead levels in the yard, but the results of these tests were not disclosed to the Paddocks when the bought the house in November 1997.
The Paddocks claim in a separate lawsuit that two real estate agencies violated state and federal law by failing to disclosure information about the lead contamination. The Paddocks say that it is not illegal to live in a house that is polluted, but it is illegal to rent or sell a home without disclosure of lead hazards. The plaintiffs recently asked the court to move the case to Boise "because of the hostile nature of articles in the press," Tina Paddock said.
"In a strange sense, the Paddocks were lucky - they could move, although it cost them an enormous price," Berman noted. "No parents should have to weigh their children's lives against their family's financial survival."
Berman stressed that medical monitoring is absolutely essential to determine the true impact of the mining contamination.
"The blatant disregard for human health extends far beyond dollars-per-acre," Berman said. "These children must be protected from mining waste - that's the real bottom line."
"The efforts at remediation over the years have been successful," said Vicki Veltkamp, a Hecla spokeswoman in a statement to the press. "There is not a widespread problem. The remedy is ongoing from the government, and the mining companies are already doing all they can."
She maintains that relatively few people have been shown to have high levels of lead.
"This is not an emergency health situation here," Veltkamp said. "What they've done here is overblown the problem severely and what it does is give a negative public perception to the Silver Valley that it's not a pleasant place to live and that it's dangerous, and that's not true."
Meanwhile, the many homes, parks and schools remain contaminated. One of the most contaminated sites may be Kellogg Middle School, located within a hundred yards of the former lead smelter site. The EPA's data shows contamination of up to 17,000 parts per million lead in soils in the school's playground, yet there are no plans to clean it up in the coming months.
The EPA's $92 million cleanup would remove lead from soils around homes, in parks and at schools in the basin. The state of Idaho proposes spending just $29 million for lead removal.
"The evidence is in," Kempthorne said. "The Coeur d'Alene Basin is one of our nation's greatest treasures, and the environmental ghosts of the past no longer need to haunt us."
If only that were true.