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Legacy Of Lead Children Left In The Dust Lead Affected Generation Of Silver Valley Children

Sun., March 9, 1997

Doctors can’t say if lead in Darin Milholland’s bones is the reason he flunked the driver’s license exam eight times.

Lori Wilson may never know if smelter grime coating her family’s apartment in the 1970s is the reason she still can’t read.

Sirena Hill will always wonder if fallout from the lead plant near her elementary school gave her epilepsy.

But a new study offers compelling evidence of a common culprit: record levels of lead that 2,000 North Idaho children ingested during the Silver Valley’s mining heyday.

This generation, now in its 20s to early 30s, has learning disabilities, sleep disorders and high blood pressure. They experience anxiety attacks, memory loss, depression. They report more cases of anemia, arthritis and sterility.

Researchers blame the Bunker Hill mining complex, the centerpiece of what was once the largest lead mining operation in the world.

In September 1973, a fire destroyed pollution controls at Bunker Hill’s lead smelter. For 18 months, it spewed 35 tons of lead each month over a 21-square-mile area that includes Kellogg, Smelterville, Wardner, Page and Pinehurst.

The smelter and the company that ran it are gone now. Its legacy lies in the bones of families who lived in the shadow of the stacks.

Children, whose bodies are still developing, are most vulnerable. Milholland, Wilson and Hill got the worst of the pollution at the most vulnerable time in their lives.

Silver Valley youngsters inhaled lead, they ate it and drank it. The hardest hit had the highest lead levels ever recorded in children.

The aftermath of the fire a quarter century ago remains the nation’s worst lead-poisoning epidemic from a smelter.

“The exposure at that time was astronomic,” says Dr. John Rosen, a lead expert from New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “It was super-extraordinary.”

Lynette Stokes, an Atlanta-based federal researcher, tracked down almost 1,500 people, now ages 21 to 32, who were exposed to lead while growing up around the Bunker Hill complex. Her study, released in November, found they suffer more problems than people not exposed.

It’s the first proof that heavy metal pollution scarred a generation from the Silver Valley.

Yet the toughest questions remain unanswered. In most cases, no study, doctor or medical test can pinpoint lead as the cause of an individual’s health problems.

That leaves people like Milholland, Wilson and Hill to guess how a poisoned past has polluted their future.

“I can understand their frustration. When you’re chronically ill you want an explanation for it,” says Dr. Keith Dahlberg, a retired Silver Valley physician.

“What I often have to say to people is, ‘I’ve examined you and I’m not able to find any physical cause for the symptoms you describe.’ At least it’s honest. I’m not calling them a crock.”

A domino effect

At first blush, Darin Milholland seems like a typical 22-year-old.

He talks sports with his friends, likes to watch TV news and dreams of opening his own trading card business.

“But throw him an instruction manual to assemble a 5-year-old’s bike and things fall apart,” says his brother, Steve.

Darin Milholland suffers from a learning disability he and his family attribute to lead poisoning.

He grew up in Pinehurst, about three miles west of the Bunker Hill smelter. The community is at the western edge of the massive toxic waste cleanup project known as the Bunker Hill Superfund site.

Colleen Milholland was pregnant with Darin, the youngest of her three children, when fire tore through the Bunker Hill smelter.

He spent his school years in special education, was held back in elementary grades, and still “got a good amount of F’s,” he says.

As a teenager, Milholland longed to drive a car and spent hours at the kitchen table studying the state driver’s manual.

He failed the driver’s test eight times before getting licensed.

“You can’t say to him, ‘I want you to scrub the floor, then wash those shelves and then dust over here,”’ says his mother. “He forgets things. He gets confused.”

Milholland almost lost a janitorial job because he couldn’t follow directions. Recent work as a deli sandwich maker in the Tri-Cities proved so stressful he quit after a few months.

“There was just too much happening,” Milholland says. “It seemed like I had to do 20 things at once, sometimes in like three minutes.”

Family members fear people may take advantage of his disability.

Milholland once returned from high school in someone else’s raggedy jacket. A friend had wanted to trade for a day. Weeks later, Milholland still wore the tattered coat.

His older brother and sister don’t complain of learning problems. They were school age when the smelter fire occurred, and not as sensitive as their infant brother to lead contamination.

Scientists can’t definitively trace Milholland’s learning disability to lead, however. All they can say is that because of his exposure, he is more likely to suffer neurological problems than most other people.

“The difference between leaded and unleaded kids is not easily discernible on a walk down Main Street,” says Pinehurst physician Robert Burnett. “You don’t have a lot of people slobbering and tripping over themselves.”

The Stokes study found that Milholland’s generation has more trouble reading, remembering and concentrating than an unexposed group from Spokane.

The group also has reduced hand-eye coordination and grip strength, diminished nerve sensitivity, slower reflexes and limited vocabulary.

Those with more lead in their bones typically performed worse.

Taken together, the slight deficiencies can add up to a lifetime of lost opportunities.

Simple tasks, such as handling scissors and crayons, are important in childhood development. Failure to master such skills can have a dangerous domino effect.

Today, Milholland drifts from job to job and lives with his parents in Kennewick.

He might be eligible for Social Security benefits, but his parents discourage it. They want him to make a life for himself.

He goes to Christian gatherings such as Promise Keepers with his dad. And he dreams of a life without lead.

“I wonder if I could have been a genius or something,” Milholland says. “It sure would be nice to know.”

Trapped in childhood

When Lori Wilson was a baby, skin would peel from her feet.

Her teeth grew in, turned brown, got soft, fell out. At 12, she hadn’t mastered her ABCs and frequently put numbers in place of letters.

Her family’s apartment was less than 250 yards from the Bunker Hill smelter.

Most days, dust laced with lead blanketed the kitchen and living room. In a month, the metallic powder turned a clear glass plate brown as it sat in a closed cupboard.

Doctors tested her blood in 1974, when she was a toddler, and found 10 times more lead than what’s now considered safe - nearly enough to kill her.

In Wilson’s hometown of Smelterville, all but two of the 175 children had elevated blood-lead levels when they were tested 23 years ago.

“They were just so close,” says Panhandle Health District’s Jerry Cobb, who runs the valley’s blood-lead screening program. “Smelterville was tucked in right underneath the smelter stacks.”

Doctors today say 10 micrograms of lead for every 10 liters of blood is safe. About a quarter of Smelterville’s children had levels at 80 micrograms or higher. Today doctors would consider that a medical emergency.

Lori Wilson had 98 micrograms.

The high numbers prompted Bunker Hill to buy out about 50 houses closest to the stacks and move those families away in the mid-1970s.

“Now, if we had the kind of exposure that we had back then, it would be a crisis, an epidemic,” Cobb says.

Wilson couldn’t finish high school and now lives in her parents’ home near Newport, Wash. She works parttime as a preschool assistant.

She’s reluctant to talk about the lead poisoning, but her parents, Robert and Judy Wilson, want her story told.

At 25, she can’t remember faces from week to week and still can’t read or write. She recently got “Hooked on Phonics” as a birthday gift.

“It’s helped some, but not much,” her father says.

Conventional medical wisdom suggests IQ scores can drop three points following a small dose of lead. Larger doses and long-term exposure can cause greater intelligence loss.

But a 1975 study designed to measure IQ loss among Silver Valley kids was inconclusive. No further tests were done - until the Stokes study.

Although that study didn’t test IQs, it did find evidence of neurological damage in the group exposed to lead.

The Wilsons were among dozens of Silver Valley families who successfully sued Bunker Hill’s parent company, Gulf Resources and Chemical Corp., claiming it had poisoned their children.

Lori Wilson receives $500 monthly settlement checks and escalating, five-figure lump sum payments every five years.

She barely knows what to do with the money.

Her parents once took her shopping to teach her money management. They gave her $100 and had her search for what it would buy.

Wilson found a $20 dress and asked for more cash, thinking she didn’t have enough.

“It hurt when I heard that,” says her father. “She has the mental ability of most third-graders, but even most third-graders can add and count better.”

A fickle toxin

Kyle Wombolt lived on the other side of the slag heap from Lori Wilson. Fallout from the smelter routinely dusted his boyhood home in Kellogg.

Today, Wombolt is a Wall Street lawyer. He used to read encyclopedias for fun and can rattle off the capitals of countries in the former Soviet Union from memory.

“He likes to make a game out of using his mind,” his mother says.

Wombolt, 27, shows how fickle lead poisoning can be.

Scientists say people react differently to lead, depending on diet, heredity and duration of exposure.

“You can take 1,000 people and give them the same dose and it’ll distribute among their tissues in approximately the same way,” says Dave Kalman, a University of Washington chemist. “But you’ll see a spectrum of effects because of genetic, behavioral and physiological differences.”

Silver Valley residents say dozens of kids from Wombolt’s generation excelled.

Wombolt played football for years on a field where cleanup crews later wore surgical masks to remove lead-contaminated soil.

He fished in the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River - a waterway so dirty it once ran gray.

“He ate picnics outside and camped on the grass to watch the stars,” says his mother, Sue.

Wombolt attended Boise State University on a basketball scholarship. He graduated at the top of his University of Idaho law school class.

He landed a job as a Wall Street attorney specializing in securities litigation and white collar crime.

Wombolt’s only lead-related memory: his fear of the needle when doctors tested his blood in kindergarten.

“It was a normal, enjoyable childhood,” he says.

Either Wombolt was just lucky that lead didn’t damage him, or his exposure wasn’t as severe as some of his neighbors.

His savior may have been well-scrubbed hands.

Most residents today know lead travels with the dust and dirt that clings to fingernails, shoes and household pets. Wombolt’s family was careful about cleanliness.

Former Pinehurst resident Shawn Gilman, 28, spoke disparagingly of one family that lived in Wardner, and whose children won a lead-poisoning settlement.

“They lived like pigs,” he says.

At the same time, Gilman is hard-pressed to find answers to his own array of problems - cysts in his ankles, lip and breasts; bones that seem to break too easily; knees that pop out of joint with no warning; mysterious aches and pains, and short-term memory loss.

“My girlfriend gets tired of me repeating stuff I already said,” he admits.

He, too, suspects lead is the culprit, recalling dusty summer days.

Cleanliness doesn’t clarify all of lead’s muddy riddle.

“I knew families with floors you could eat off who had kids with high blood leads,” Cobb says. “The smelter didn’t discriminate.”

Future fears

Winds still blow lead dust through the Silver Valley.

A sign above the Panhandle Health District office in Kellogg reminds visitors to clean their shoes before entering. There are brushes nearby for that purpose.

Every year, the health district tests children’s blood.

Workers cleaning up the Bunker Hill Superfund site even collect residents’ vacuum cleaner bags to look for lead dust.

Sirena Hill says she doesn’t mind the intrusion, “if they figure things out for me, too.”

Hill, 28, lives with her husband and two children in a pale green house in Smelterville, her hometown. The hillsides behind their home are barren from decades of heavy metal contamination.

At 5, Hill was hospitalized and treated for lead poisoning after blood tests revealed dangerous amounts of the metal in her veins.

Now she has epilepsy and wonders whether the contamination has something to do with it.

Her seizures started when she was in Silver King Elementary School, next door to the smelter, and they intensified after high school. Anxiety often triggered them.

From a box of old files in her bedroom, Hill pulls out a brochure on epilepsy. The word “lead” is highlighted in yellow under the subheading “Causes.”

“I’d really like to know if it’s lead that caused it,” she says. “It would be nice to know more about it.”

Bunker Hill’s 1981 closure, the ongoing Superfund cleanup and aggressive health education have reduced blood-lead among Silver Valley children to near-normal levels.

But Hill’s youngest child, 6-year-old Heidi, still has elevated lead levels in her blood.

Hill won’t let her children play in the lead-laden stream where she caught frogs as a child. She worries her kids also will develop mysterious health problems.

“They replaced our yards, but there’s still the hills up there,” Hill says. “We have all this bad dirt still blowing throughout the area.”

Scientists can’t say what the future holds for people who were poisoned nearly 25 years ago.

“Drop-dead illnesses are easy to understand. Lead’s not like that,” says Herbert Needleman, a University of Pittsburgh professor and lead researcher.

Arthritis, muscle pains, high blood pressure, anemia, sterility - all could strike at a later date.

Stokes says researchers should revisit the people exposed to lead in the Silver Valley to see if they develop kidney problems commonly associated with lead later in life.

“Now we sit back and we wait, and track over time to see if we find more problems,” says Cobb.

Hill didn’t think much about her future health until she learned the lead will stay in her bones forever. “I worry later on, what it would do.”

Wilson’s parents predict she will suffer more medical problems, and fear her life-expectancy has been shortened.

Milholland just wants to have the same opportunities as anyone else.

Never coordinated enough for sports, he started collecting baseball, football and basketball cards in grade school. He now has about 5,000, and wants to open a trading card store.

“I don’t know if it’ll happen,” he says.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (1 color) Graphic: Lead’s effect on the body

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: IN THIS SERIES Today Lead dust from the old Bunker Hill smelter poisoned a generation. But people experiencing a variety of health problems will never be certain if lead is to blame.

Monday The threat of lead contamination spreads far beyond the communities coated by smelter fallout. Flood waters now carry heavy metals in the region’s rivers.

THE LINK BETWEEN LEAD AND HEALTH PROBLEMS A recent government study shows for the first time a link between childhood lead exposure in the Silver Valley and serious health problems. Here are the details of that study: Conducted by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Designed to see if high lead exposure during childhood is associated with adult nervous system, reproductive or kidney problems. The agency tracked down 1,466 adults who were 9 months through 9 years old and living in Kellogg, Smelterville, Wardner, Page and Pinehurst in 1974 and 1975. Of those, researchers interviewed 917 and tested the nervous systems of 281. They also tested the bone lead of test participants, which measures lead exposure over a lifetime. For comparison purposes, 754 Spokane residents aged 19 to 30 were randomly selected from driver’s license records. Of those, 287 participated in tests of their nervous system and bone lead tests. The Silver Valley group reported significantly more infertility and other health problems than the Spokane group, except in the case of kidney disease, where no difference was found. The Silver Valley group did not perform as well as the Spokane group on the nerve function tests. Results showed that as bone lead concentrations increased, performance decreased.

These sidebars appeared with the story: IN THIS SERIES Today Lead dust from the old Bunker Hill smelter poisoned a generation. But people experiencing a variety of health problems will never be certain if lead is to blame.

Monday The threat of lead contamination spreads far beyond the communities coated by smelter fallout. Flood waters now carry heavy metals in the region’s rivers.

THE LINK BETWEEN LEAD AND HEALTH PROBLEMS A recent government study shows for the first time a link between childhood lead exposure in the Silver Valley and serious health problems. Here are the details of that study: Conducted by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Designed to see if high lead exposure during childhood is associated with adult nervous system, reproductive or kidney problems. The agency tracked down 1,466 adults who were 9 months through 9 years old and living in Kellogg, Smelterville, Wardner, Page and Pinehurst in 1974 and 1975. Of those, researchers interviewed 917 and tested the nervous systems of 281. They also tested the bone lead of test participants, which measures lead exposure over a lifetime. For comparison purposes, 754 Spokane residents aged 19 to 30 were randomly selected from driver’s license records. Of those, 287 participated in tests of their nervous system and bone lead tests. The Silver Valley group reported significantly more infertility and other health problems than the Spokane group, except in the case of kidney disease, where no difference was found. The Silver Valley group did not perform as well as the Spokane group on the nerve function tests. Results showed that as bone lead concentrations increased, performance decreased.



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