It is, officially, National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. It’s an annual coordinated concentration of education and awareness regarding lead poisoning, which is recognized by the CDC as the number one environmental health threat to children in the U.S. In most parts of the country, the focus is on deteriorating lead-based paint, which was widely used in residential housing prior to being banned in 1978.
However, in our region, we have another exposure pathway for lead poisoning — the legacy of mine waste that pollutes shorelines and waterways throughout the Coeur d’Alene basin. Because of lead and other heavy metals, an EPA cleanup has been ongoing in the Basin for a couple of decades, and a controversial proposal would have the cleanup continue in the upper basin for the next 50 to 90 years.
At hearings and public meetings on the proposed EPA cleanup plan, some residents question the need for the cleanup because the perception that there aren’t any remaining health issues in the Silver Valley. Unfortunately, while gains have been made, threats to public health in the valley do indeed remain. Sampling shows that contamination from heavy metals is widespread and diffuse throughout the Silver Valley, with contamination along nearly every drainage. The Silver Valley contamination contains numerous toxic metals, most notably lead, that exceed human health criteria. Human exposure to lead mainly comes through contact or ingestion of surface waters, inhaling dust, ingesting dust or soil.
Furthermore, while previous cleanup efforts have improved the water quality of the surface waters in the Silver Valley many stretches of those waters are still seriously impaired by heavy metals. As EPA notes in its proposal, “[t]he risks are neither hypothetical nor potential future risks—the risks continue to exist today.” The same is true of groundwater, which “is severely affected and contributes to surface water contamination.”
Lead poisoning is particularly insidious because the effects of lead poisoning can be subtle and indistinguishable from other common ailments. Early symptoms include: persistent fatigue, irritability, loss of appetite, stomach discomfort/constipation, reduced attention span, and insomnia. Prolonged or chronic exposure in adults can result in poor muscle circulation, nerve damage, increased blood pressure, and reproduced sperm count. Pregnant women are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning as it can affect fetal development (even at very low exposure levels).
Children are the most susceptible to lead poisoning for a number of reasons: children are exposed to relatively greater quantities of lead per unit of body mass; children are developing and growing; children are more likely to have nutritional deficiencies conducive to magnifying lead’s toxicological effects; and children are more likely to ingest soil, inhale dust particles, and consume water while recreating. These are some of the reasons why lead poisoning in children remains the single most significant human health risk within the Superfund site.
For children, even very low levels of lead exposure can cause brain damage and/or mental retardation, behavioral problems, hyperactivity, and developmental delays. Although the current lead blood level of concern for children is 10 ug/dL, recent studies indicate that there is no threshold level of safety and adverse effects of lead can occur at far lower levels. Between 2000 and 2004, fifteen percent of children tested in the Silver Valley had blood lead levels higher than 10 ug/dL. More recent data show average levels of lead in Silver Valley children is near national averages. Although these recent averages sound promising, the number of children actually being tested is quite small. Given that there is really no safe level of lead in children, it remains clear that lead contamination levels in the Silver Valley needs to be reduced as much as practicable in order to avoid risks of cognitive and other developmental impairments in resident children.
Toxic exposure in children should not form the basis of a political debate; the debate should be scientific. And the scientific debate is long over. Although lead and other heavy metals have been reduced, those substances still exist in the Silver Valley at levels that are hazardous to human health, particularly the health of children. And they still flow through teh valley with each flood season. This is an ongoing problem that will not go away and will impact the Silver Valley for many years to come. So, while the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan might not be a perfect solution to the Valley’s mine waste problem, failing to act is not an option. Postponing or avoiding the cleanup only serves to increase the potential for toxic exposures to the most vulnerable members of our communities — our children.
Jeff Briggs, our summer legal intern, contributed to this article.