Calling the Spokane River a “toxic soup,” a visiting medical expert urged Spokane doctors to plan for the likelihood of lead poisoning from the river.
Dr. John Rosen, a New York lead expert and pediatrician, said the river may have to be fenced off to keep children from being poisoned.
“It’s more likely than not that the Spokane River is contaminated,” he said.
But mining industry representatives who attended Rosen’s lecture Thursday at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane said Rosen’s comments about the river are unfounded and extreme.
“There are no studies, including studies done by the (Washington) Department of Ecology, that show any problems for fish or humans,” said Holly Houston, director of the Coeur d’Alene Basin Mining Information Office. “Even in their studies, the metals never exceeded drinking-water standards, ever.”
Most of Rosen’s comments centered on the problem of lead poisoning in children - an issue that Houston did not challenge. The clinic he heads in New York treats children poisoned by lead-based paint.
In all cases of lead poisoning, whether it’s from leaded paint, mine tailings or smelter fallout, the only real solution is removing lead from the environment, Rosen said.
“One can treat kids after the fact, but prevention is where the action is,” he said.
Even with progress on the Bunker Hill Superfund cleanup, Rosen noted that 22.4 percent of the children tested there still have elevated blood lead levels.
“That’s remarkable,” he said, after his lecture. “Even in highly leaded cities, the prevalence isn’t that high.
The Silver Valley’s children no longer have blood-lead levels as high as they did in 1974, when the average Smelterville child had 65 micrograms per deciliter blood - six times what’s now considered safe.
But even small amounts of lead are harmful, Rosen said.
“It’s clear that children within this range from 10 to 25, their outlook may be considered to be relatively grim,” he said.
Using slides and charts, Rosen offered scientific evidence to show that infants with only slightly elevated blood lead levels still perform worse on developmental tests than children not exposed to lead.
“There are pervasive, bio-chemical abnormalities that affects every cell in the human body,” he said.
Studies also have shown, he said, that there is no amount of lead that does not cause problems. Moreover, lead accumulates in bones and is easily released back into the blood system.
While the Panhandle Health District advises parents of lead-poisoned children to practice good hygiene and good nutrition as a way to lower lead levels, Rosen said that isn’t enough.
Yet, many people in the Silver Valley who have been exposed to lead all their lives don’t see it as a big problem. Rosen said that’s common in Superfund sites.
“Sooner or later, people do come around. There will always be hardcore people who don’t believe it,” he said. Bunker Hill, he said, “is an example of about the worst, most severe exposure to lead from a Superfund site that I’m aware of in the U.S.
“And it not only has impact in Idaho, but also Washington.”
Rosen heads the Montefiore Medical Center’s lead program in New York. He came to Spokane at the invitation of the Kellogg-based Citizens Action Coalition and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The Citizens Action Coalition formed years ago to advocate for health intervention for people harmed by mining pollution. The group wants to launch a clinical program to offer medical information, diagnosis and treatment for lead-related problems in the Silver Valley.
Rosen has offered his expertise to help the effort.
He was introduced Thursday by John Osborn, a physician and director of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council, which has launched a campaign pushing for the cleanup of mining waste in the Coeur d’Alene River basin.
Meanwhile, the Washington attorney general’s office is considering a lawsuit against upstream mining companies to pay for damage to the Spokane River. The Washington Legislature is currently debating whether to give the attorney general’s office $600,000 for the effort.
The action would be based in large part on a state study that found the river doesn’t meet water quality criteria for aquatic life. The study named historic mining practices in Idaho as the culprit.
The river water does meet drinking standards for heavy metals, however, and the state health department has not issued a public health warning on account of lead.
In contrast, health warnings line the lower Coeur d’Alene River at recreation sites.
A recent environmental health study also found that 15 percent of the children in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin - outside the Bunker Hill Superfund site - have elevated blood lead levels.
“It’s very bad news,” Rosen said of the study.
Of those who were tested, none had levels higher than 20 micrograms per deciliter, which is twice as much as what’s considered safe.
While Houston suggested that many of those children may live in old houses with lead-based paint, some residents believe that heavy metals are being washed onto their property during floods.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Rosen speaks Rosen will speak again today at 2 p.m. at Kootenai Medical Center’s Health Resource Center in Coeur d’Alene.
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