Spokane should plan to protect people from lead contamination in the Spokane River, a New York City lead expert said Thursday in a lecture to Spokane doctors and community activists.
“It’s more likely than not that the Spokane River is already contaminated” and eventually might have to be fenced off to prevent public access, said Dr. John Rosen.
The Harvard-educated doctor heads the largest lead-exposure treatment program in the nation.
“To face this eventuality, I’d hope that plans among health professionals would be in place today,” Rosen said.
Health officials at Rosen’s lecture were surprised by his comments.
“I personally haven’t been informed of problems with very heavy lead contamination in the Spokane River in this area,” said Paul Stepak, Spokane County’s medical epidemiologist.
“But that doesn’t mean there aren’t results worth considering,” Stepak said.
Mining company officials also were highly skeptical.
“I don’t see any danger level in the river at this stage,” said Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association.
Recent studies show that Lake Coeur d’Alene sediments laced with lead, zinc and cadmium are being flushed into the Spokane River and are headed down-stream. But there has been no comprehensive study of how far they have spread or how dangerous they are.
There’s an overwhelming scientific consensus that lead in extremely small concentrations is hazardous, especially to children and pregnant women, Rosen said.
He came to Spokane at the invitation of the Kellogg-based Citizens Action Coalition and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The Citizens Action Coalition formed years ago to advocate for health intervention for people harmed by mining pollution. The group wants to launch a clinical program to offer medical information, diagnosis and treatment for lead-related problems in the Silver Valley.
Rosen’s remarks at Sacred Heart Medical Center were timely. There’s a fight in the Washington Legislature this month over $600,000 to further study lead and other toxic metals in the Spokane River.
A 1994 Washington Department of Ecology study says the river pollution comes from mines upstream in Idaho.
“Cadmium, lead and zinc from historical mining practices in Idaho are considered to be the major reason for violation of Washington’s water quality criteria,” the report states.
The Northwest Mining Association recently tried to kill the budget appropriation for the river study, but Gov. Gary Locke wants it to go forward.
Locke’s spending plan passed the state Senate, but it was stripped from the House budget on March 28 after the mining association lobbied against it.
The fate of the proposed study will be resolved in a joint House-Senate conference committee, said Assistant Attorney General Jay Manning.
“We asked them to put the money back in the budget, and they did,” Manning said.
The study could give Washington state officials more ammunition to sue Idaho mining companies for degrading water quality in the Spokane River.
Several companies are already the target of a Clinton administration lawsuit seeking nearly $1 billion in damages for the Idaho side of the river basin.
Washington officials haven’t yet decided whether they’ll sue, Manning said.
There’s no proof that Idaho’s mines are the source of the river contamination, Skaer said.
Rosen’s remarks about lead pollution in the Spokane River are based on two recent studies.
In 1994, Ecology scientist G.J. Pelletier found elevated lead levels at one of three sites he measured along the river in Spokane County.
A 1996 environmental study found the pollution problem was worst behind Upriver Dam near Felts Field, where lead, cadmium and zinc in river sediments measured three times levels considered safe for living organisms.
The studies are a cause for concern because they show the river consistently violates water quality standards for freshwater life, Manning said.
More metals - including a million additional pounds of lead in just one day last year - have been washed downstream during recent floods, said Dr. John Osborne of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council, a Spokane group pushing for a basinwide cleanup.
Besides the river, there are other lead hazards in Spokane, Rosen said.
Approximately 33,000 Spokane children live in pre-1950s houses where lead paint likely was used. That paint is still an exposure hazard, he said.
Less than 5 percent of 675 Spokane children screened through June 1966 for lead in their blood had elevated levels, Stepak said. But there’s been no comprehensive, house-by-house screening program, he said.
Lead contamination causes a wide range of problems. It can damage red blood cells and cause learning problems and behavior difficulties, Rosen said.
Rosen, a professor of pediatrics, heads the nation’s largest lead exposure treatment program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx.
The Harvard Medical School graduate has been an outspoken advocate for getting medical care to affected people around Superfund sites, including those in Idaho’s Silver Valley.
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