January 30, 2014 in Idaho

Lead cleanup working in Silver Valley, official says

By The Spokesman-Review
 
No safe level

The blood-lead level considered safe has dropped several times since the ’70s. Most recently, federal authorities have said there’s no safe level of lead in children’s blood.

BOISE – Cleanup of mining waste 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.

A big push to test children’s blood-lead levels in the Kellogg area this past summer turned up very low rates, with only 1 percent elevated.

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 last year had levels of 10 or above.

The level considered safe has dropped several times since the ’70s, from 40 to 30 to 10 to 5. Most recently, federal authorities have said there’s no safe level of lead in children’s blood.

Last summer was the first extensive testing of children 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. The DEQ went door to door and did extensive outreach to persuade parents of children 6 months to 9 years old 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.”

Last year, DEQ wanted to make sure the progress had held.

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

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

DEQ also tested household dust in Silver Valley homes, but Hanson said those test results won’t be out until 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 flooding and repairing damage to local roads caused by heavy truck traffic involved in cleanup.


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