Bond announces plans to fight lead poisoning

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- For a mother whose 9-year-old son needs help tying his shoe, tomorrow can't be too soon for the city of St. Louis to get more money to fight the lead poisoning responsible for his condition.

And a grandmother knows more needs to be done, given that her young granddaughter is prone to hyperactivity, mysteriously falls sick and often needed to be pulled out of Headstart and day care programs.

Statistics back up what relatives see firsthand: St. Louis has a problem with lead-poisoned children, with more children affected at more significant levels than most other American cities.

"In the last 10 years, one of four children tested in St. Louis -- 25 percent of those children-- had an elevated lead blood level," said Fernando Serrano, who has studied the issue as an instructor at Saint Louis University's School of Public Health.

When St. Louis screened children for lead poisoning in 2000, about 3,500 of roughly 11,000 youngsters -- about one-third -- under the age of 6 tested positive for elevated lead levels. Serrano said despite improved screening efforts, the patterns of St. Louis lead poisoning over time are not showing a reduction.

"When you think that lead poisoning is a preventable condition in public health, that is unacceptable."

Sen. Kit Bond came here Tuesday to announce he's seeking $15 million over the next three years to help fund lead-abatement programs in the city.

He spoke at the Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Center in north St. Louis, the agency he'd like to administer the money if he secures it.

"It's a local epidemic we can, and we will, and we must stop," Bond said. He said he'd like a program in place that doesn't wait for a child to test positive for lead poisoning before a resident gets abatement help.

"We can no longer afford to use children as our primary lead detectors. That has got to stop," Bond said, adding that he secured an additional $2 million in a 2003 appropriations bill that cleared Congress last week.

Bond's push was welcomed news to Judith Reihl, executive director of the St. Louis Lead Prevention Coalition.

"We have really stepped up the screenings. We're identifying the children, but we don't have the 'Now, what?"' she said, believing more money for lead abatement could help answer that question.

The older housing that adds to St. Louis' character isn't doing much to protect the city's children. About 90 percent of the city's homes were built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned for indoor use in homes, Reihl said.

Children who live in homes with lead paint may be exposed to damaging paint chips and dust, varying from house to house.

Reihl said families need training in specific practices for dealing with lead. There are cleaning methods effective at paring children's exposure, though vigorous scrubbing actually can exacerbate the problem. Or parents might think their kids are safe, unaware they might release lead dust into a room every time they open and close windows, she said.

Professionals can make a house lead-free or lead-safe, but some rehabbers or pregnant women expose themselves to lead trying to fix up a home or nursery without knowing the dangers.

Families dealing with lead poisoning said more needs to be done.

Vickie Lomax-Garry said her 4-year-old granddaughter, Brianna Enlow, fell sick unexpectedly over a period of time after being lead poisoned. Lomax-Garry has been trained on how to deal with lead in a Grace Hill program, but she said her daughter hasn't been able to get the city out to her house to gauge how severe the problem is.

And mother Teonie Smith said it's too late for her son Brandon Smith, 9, to fully recover from his lead poisoning. She said he is coping with hearing, speech and learning disabilities, and she must help him bathe and tie his shoes.

"My son didn't eat paint. There weren't chips. He was inhaling dust throughout the rooms," she said.

Smith, who moved out of her rental unit with lead paint, thanked Bond for his efforts and said she hopes more can be done to help others. She said she knew about lead poisoning before her child was striken, but thought it wouldn't happen in her family.

"I didn't think it would be one of my kids. He was a healthy baby. The only problem was the house was full of lead."

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On the Net

  • CDC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program: www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/lead.htm

  • St. Louis Lead Prevention Coalition: www.leadprevention.org

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