Two decades after the Bunker Hill smelter blanketed Shoshone County in toxic metals, the federal government is considering giving residents regular, free medical checkups.
The nation’s top lead-poisoning experts will attend a Silver Valley workshop this month to determine whether the government should begin screening residents for lead-related disease.
Reaching that decision could take six months, and would mark only the second time a Superfund site has been considered for so-called “medical monitoring.”
The first was at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state.
“It’s not a study; it’s more of a service program,” said Greg Thomas, a spokesman for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “It’s identifying people at increased risk for disease, providing diagnosis and offering referrals.”
But Silver Valley residents, who complain that government scientists study but don’t help them, say the program offers too little, too late.
“We’ve asked them to do this for years,” said Sylvia Sjogren, a former smelter worker who complains of back and kidney trouble. “It’s something they should have done at the outset.”
Residents also are angry that federal agencies would pay for everything except actual treatment, after they’ve spent millions of dollars on studies since the early 1970s.
“If they’re going to monitor and not treat, there’s no success there,” said Betty Belisle, a member of the People’s Action Coalition, a Kellogg group that has pushed for medical care. “In the end it boils down to more testing and study.”
Federal officials maintain they don’t have the money or the authority to pay doctor bills.
They also argue that because lead is a fickle toxin, monitoring would let people know with some certainty what kind of medical care they need - if any.
And they point out there still are many questions to be answered.
“Who is at increased risk?” Thomas asked. “What for? How could that fit into monitoring? What sorts of tests would be offered?”
A panel of lead experts, community members and health officials will meet all day Aug. 19 and 20 at the Kellogg Middle School library to begin answering those questions.
It will be a complex process, in part because the health problems associated with lead are so diverse.
Last year, epidemiologists completed two long-range studies: one of women who were exposed to lead while working for Bunker Hill; another of adults who were exposed to lead fallout as children.
Results showed the women generally start menopause early, are more likely to have dangerously brittle bones, and report more cases of hypertension, anemia and arthritis than other women.
The adults exposed as kids, meanwhile, suffer learning disabilities, slowed nerve function, infertility, and urinary tract conditions.
Because of the nature of lead, and the varying degrees of exposure, some study participants appeared completely healthy.
Some of the problems, meanwhile, just aren’t treatable.
“I’ll be curious to see just how we make this decision,” said Jerry Cobb of the Panhandle Health District, who runs the blood-lead screening program for the 21-square-mile Superfund site.
Before a decision is made, two more workshops will be held, probably in October and early November.
Only then will federal officials estimate how much it will cost, and try to determine where the money will come from.
The Hanford monitoring program was approved earlier this year, and calls for regular exams for some 14,000 people exposed to radioactive iodine as children.
But the Department of Energy has not yet found the $4 million it will cost to initiate the program and the $10 million to run it in 1998.
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