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Wednesday, October 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blood-lead testing crucial for Silver Valley children

“They just prick your finger really quick,” Iliana Lewis, 6, said as she showed off her bandage after participating in the blood-lead screening offered by Panhandle Health District at Osburn Seventh-day Adventist Church on Thursday. (Kathy Plonka)
“They just prick your finger really quick,” Iliana Lewis, 6, said as she showed off her bandage after participating in the blood-lead screening offered by Panhandle Health District at Osburn Seventh-day Adventist Church on Thursday. (Kathy Plonka)

When Shane Stancik grew up near the old Bunker Hill Mine and Smelter complex, it was a magnet for neighborhood kids. He and his friends poked around the rusting equipment and rode their bikes down the slag piles.

“I was playing in the middle of a Superfund site,” said Stancik, a fifth-generation Silver Valley resident. “I didn’t know any better.”

As a child, Stancik, 32, tested high for lead exposure during regular screenings. Earlier this year, his 6-year-old son had elevated blood-lead levels, which have since come down.

“It was a pretty heavy blow to know that it had also happened to my son,” Stancik said.

Decades of mine waste cleanup have taken place in Idaho’s Silver Valley, including replacing contaminated soil in residential yards with clean dirt. Yet environmental exposures to heavy metals remain. That’s why parents should continue to get their children tested for lead exposure, say officials at the Panhandle Health District, which is offering free testing through next Wednesday.

“It’s still one of the largest Superfund sites in the country,” said Jerry Cobb, a program manager for the health district. “Lead is one of the primary metals of concern.”

To encourage parents to get their kids tested, the district is offering community pool passes and incentives of $20 per child for families in certain areas of the Silver Valley. Last year, 89 children took part in the voluntary testing – a figure that community leaders would like to see increased.

Children’s blood-lead levels in the Silver Valley have declined dramatically since the 1970s, when the Bunker Hill smelter was operating without pollution controls. At the time, kids living near the smelter averaged blood-lead levels of 65 micrograms per deciliter, among the highest in the nation.

Now, valley children have blood-lead levels mirroring national averages, Cobb said. However, the health district continues to see a few instances of elevated lead exposure.

The lead screenings are timed for the peak of summer, when children are most likely to be playing outside. Despite widespread cleanup efforts, “there’s still a lot of material out there,” Cobb said.

Stancik suspects that his young son – also named Shane – was exposed to lead by playing in the dirt. The family formerly lived in an older home near Kellogg, which also had lead-based paint. Their yard had been cleaned up, but Stancik isn’t sure about other yards in that area.

He and his wife have since moved. They monitor their son’s diet carefully, making sure he’s getting enough calcium to keep any lead absorbed by his bones from leaching back into his bloodstream.

Stancik said follow-up screening indicated that his son’s blood-lead levels had dropped well below 5 micrograms per deciliter, the Centers for Disease Control’s new threshold of concern.

In May, the CDC lowered the threshold from 10 micrograms per deciliter, citing harm to young children’s developing brains. Lead exposure has been linked to lower IQs as well as learning and behavioral problems.

Over the past four years, the Panhandle Health District’s screening has detected blood-lead levels as high as 20 micrograms per deciliter in Silver Valley children, though the average is in the 2 to 3 micrograms per deciliter range. Cobb cites the valley’s older houses – most were built in the era of lead-based paint – and outdoor recreation as potential exposure pathways.

Some of the valley’s most scenic areas are also the most polluted. Parts of the Coeur d’Alene River’s floodplain have lead concentrations ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 parts per million, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Those areas have not been remediated,” Cobb said.

Children can be exposed to lead dust while their families are camping, fishing or four-wheeling near the river. That dust can also be carried into homes on clothing, shoes, tents and other outdoor gear, Cobb said.

Cass Davis, 47, is a member of the Silver Valley Community Resource Center, which advocates for increased blood-lead screening for children. He’d like to see the Panhandle Health District go door-to-door in the Silver Valley, encouraging people to get their children tested.

As a kid, he played in Pine Creek and along the railroad tracks, which were highly contaminated from spilled metals concentrate.

“The avenues of exposure are different than when I was a child, but there’s still a lot of exposure,” said Davis, who now lives in Moscow, Idaho.

The number of Silver Valley families getting their children tested has leveled off over the years, but it still represents about 20 percent of children in the area, Cobb said.

“That’s a reasonable number,” he said. “We’d like to reach them all, but that doesn’t happen.”

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