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DEQ chief: Tests on kids show lead cleanup is working

Wed., Jan. 29, 2014, 3:59 p.m.

BOISE - Cleanup of mining wastes in the most-contaminated part of the Coeur d’Alene Basin appears to be working, Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality chief told state lawmakers Wednesday, after a big push to test kids’ blood lead levels in the Kellogg area once again this past summer turned up very low rates, with only 1 percent elevated at all.

Curt Fransen, DEQ director, said blood-lead levels in children in the Kellogg area were once among the highest ever recorded in the country; now, they’ve dropped to “levels consistent with national averages.”

High blood-lead levels can cause extensive damage in children, including lowered IQ and long-lasting health problems. In the 1970s, children living near the Bunker Hill smelter when it was operating without pollution controls had blood-lead levels averaging 65 micrograms per deciliter. Now, the average level is 2.4 micrograms; just two of the 276 children tested this year had levels of 10 or above.

The level considered safe has dropped several times over that time period, from 40 to 30 to 10 to 5. Most recently, federal authorities have declared that there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood.

This summer’s was the first extensive testing of kids in the 21-square-mile Bunker Hill Superfund site, often referred to as the “box,” in the past decade; parents were offered a $30 per child incentive to bring them in for tests. DEQ went door-to-door and did extensive outreach to persuade parents of children age 6 months to 9 years to bring their kids in for testing.

The results, Fransen said, “confirmed that the blood-lead levels of children in the ‘box’ remain within national averages, and demonstrate that the cleanup efforts have been successful, effectively maintaining the progress that has been made.”

After the levels dropped steadily for years, the federal government stopped paying for extensive annual testing of kids in the “box” after 2002, though the Panhandle Health District continued voluntary testing and children from other parts of the basin still were tested.

This year, the DEQ wanted to make sure the progress had held. “In 2013, we said, ‘We ought to go back and see,’” said Rob Hanson, mine waste program manager for DEQ. “It’s been over 10 years. Let’s go back and see where we are.”

A big focus of the cleanup was removing hazards to human health; as part of that, contaminated soils were removed and replaced from the yards of hundreds of homes.

Of the 276 children tested this year, just two had blood-lead levels of 10 micrograms or more; one of those was at 15. Hanson said those youngsters both were exposed not at their homes, but at areas where they went to recreate that hadn’t yet been cleaned up.

DEQ also tested household dust in Silver Valley homes this year; those test results aren’t in yet. Hanson said they’ll be out in the spring.

Cleanup in the Silver Valley continues. Fransen told the Legislature’s joint budget committee that ongoing work includes infrastructure improvement projects such as installing drains and culverts to protect the cleanup work already completed from localized flooding, and repairing damage to local roads caused by heavy truck traffic involved in cleanup.


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