Kids inside the Bunker Hill Superfund Site aren’t the only ones in the neighborhood with lead in their veins.
A state study of families who live in the Coeur d’Alene River basin found that 15 percent of children under the age of 6 have hazardous amounts of lead in their blood.
The study is the first ever to examine bloodlead levels outside the Superfund site, from the Idaho/Montana border to Lake Coeur d’Alene.
“I think unless you live in the Superfund site, you may think you or your children don’t have a reason to be concerned,” said Marti Calabretta, coordinator of cleanup projects upstream of the Superfund site.
“Any number of children (with high blood-lead levels) outside the Superfund box lends concern to how many more there might be who weren’t tested,” Calabretta said.
Of the 231 children under 6 years of age in the basin, excluding the Superfund site, 47 had their blood tested. Of those, seven children had elevated blood-lead levels.
If high lead levels persist over time, children can develop problems with hearing and growth, reduced intelligence and behavioral problems. The younger the child, the more vulnerable they are to the toxin.
Tina Irwin, of Cataldo, believes the most likely cause of the elevated blood-lead levels is the flooding that washes heavy metals from the Superfund site and other contaminated mining or mill sites toward her downstream home.
Her 5-year-old son is one of seven children who tested high, and neighbor Lee Anna Sexton, 2, had one of the highest lead levels of any child tested outside the Superfund site.
Both families had large amounts of silt deposited in their homes and yards during the major flood of February 1996.
“I would almost bet my bottom dollar that those seven were directly affected by the flood,” Irwin said.
While the number of children tested was small, state health officials still believe the findings are significant.
“We don’t like to see any kid with elevated blood lead, so I’d say that’s a problem,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn.
Drawing conclusions from such a limited study is difficult, Hahn conceded.
“Our understanding is that some families said, ‘If it turns out there’s a problem in the area, then maybe we’ll have our kids tested,”’ Hahn said.
Given that, the health department may revisit families this summer and ask again for permission to test their blood.
The results released Wednesday are preliminary and address only data from blood tests and urine cadmium tests. The number of children and adults with high levels of cadmium in their urine was lower than those with high blood-lead levels.
Cadmium can cause kidney problems and weaken bones, according to Brian Abbott, a public health toxicologist. The people with the highest percentage of cadmium in their urine were people over 41 years old. Of the 37 children under 6 tested, none had high levels of cadmium.
In addition to blood and urine tests, researchers last summer surveyed more than 800 households and collected soil samples, water samples, vacuum dust samples and other house dust samples.
The results of the environmental sampling will not be released until later this spring. A final report in late 1997 will wrap up all the data and try to identify the sources of lead and cadmium contamination.
The state started testing the blood-lead levels of children in the Kellogg, Wardner, Smelterville and Page area in 1974, after a fire destroyed pollution controls at the Bunker Hill lead smelter.
Blood-lead tests were part of growing up in those communities, which are included in the massive Superfund cleanup. Blood-lead levels have dropped dramatically inside the site since 1974, and now only about 16 percent of children tested there exceed desired levels.
Last summer’s study, conducted by the state with a grant from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, was the first to attempt to characterize health hazards from mining waste outside the Superfund site.
The most important result of the study is to make people more aware of how to reduce their exposure to lead, Calabretta said. “Not playing in dirt, washing hands before meal,” she suggested.
Considering the national political attention being given to mining pollution in the basin, the study is likely to become ammunition in the war over how to address heavy metal contamination there.
While state officials cautioned against drawing conclusions about the cause of high blood-lead levels in the basin, the Irwins, environmental activists and others are convinced it’s environmental pollution.
“What’s the next step?” asked Scott Brown of the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental group promoting aggressive cleanup of the river basin.
“It may not be just that they need to wash their hands better,” he added. “We may have to deal with (cleanup) in the area, and that’s where the current program has fallen.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Blood-lead
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