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Lead screening still a dilemma in Silver Valley

Parents may be paid to get kids tested

Community leaders in Idaho’s Silver Valley are searching for ways to encourage more parents to have their children tested for lead exposure. Paying parents to have their kids screened might be the most expedient method to boost screening rates, several people said at a Tuesday meeting in Kellogg.

“We know what works,” said Jon Cantamessa, chairman of the Shoshone County Board of Commissioners. “If you hand them money, you’ll get the turnout.”

Lead exposure in the Silver Valley has dropped dramatically since the early 1980s, when children in the Kellogg area averaged blood-lead levels of 40 micrograms per deciliter. But as the Bunker Hill Superfund cleanup continues, public health officials still want parents to get their children screened for lead.

Early childhood lead exposure is linked to lowered IQ and behavioral problems. New studies are detecting health problems at very low levels of lead exposure.

About 1,000 children in the Silver Valley are eligible for free lead screening each year. Last year, the Panhandle Health District offered a $40 stipend as an incentive for families in certain parts of the Superfund site to bring their children in for testing. Participation rose from 78 children in 2008 to 175 children in 2009.

Three children had blood lead levels in excess of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold for public health action, which is 10 micrograms per deciliter. The Panhandle Health District helps those families identify where their children are exposed to lead, so they can reduce the risk, said Jerry Cobb, a health district program manager.

But getting the federal government to provide money for payments is difficult, Cobb said. Money for that program tapered off after 2002, when three years of data showed that 95 percent of kids living in “the Box,” a 21-square mile area that got the brunt of mining pollution, had blood-lead levels of less than 10 micrograms per deciliter.

The payments are controversial, too, Cobb added. “You get people saying, ‘Why are you paying parents for something they should be doing anyway?’ ”

The federal government has spent millions of dollars to strip contaminated soil from residential yards and replace it with clean soil. That’s reduced the lead levels in house dust. But kids can also be exposed to lead when they’re camping, playing in the river or riding all-terrain vehicles, several audience members noted. That dust can be tracked back into houses.

Long-term residents may not perceive lead exposure as an urgent health issue, said Bill Rust, a mining industry consultant who attended Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s a question of relative risk,” he said. “They think, ‘My parents and my grandparents grew up with this.’ … They don’t believe the relative risk is as high as the studies state.”

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