City details difficulties in fighting lead poisoning

Saturday, August 9, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- There's a pattern in this city that outrages health officials and parents: the first sign of lead poisoning often comes not from testing homes, but from testing children.

St. Louis ranks in the top 5 percent of American cities for lead problems, and that's with only about 40 percent of the city's children being tested for lead poisoning.

In addition, the percentage of black children with lead poisoning is about twice as high as that of white children.

Often, the first sign that something's wrong comes not from analyzing lead around the home, but when children, or adults, are tested after they're already showing symptoms.

In some cases, the damage is already done and irreversible.

The city needs a new approach to fighting lead poisoning, Brenda Quarles told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a story published Friday. She's the bureau chief in the St. Louis Health Department who coordinates lead poison prevention efforts.

Screening children

When St. Louis screened some children for lead poisoning in 2000, about 3,500 of roughly 11,000 youngsters under the age of 6 tested positive for elevated lead levels.

The solution sounds simple; the lead hazards should be fixed before any poisoning occurs. "Children should not be our detectors for lead abatement action," Quarles said.

But some cases in St. Louis show fixing lead poisoning comes with its own complications and can affect anyone.

Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., D-St. Louis, and his wife, Ivie, had their daughter tested several years ago.

High lead levels in her blood were blamed on contaminated soil at the baby sitter's home near the old National Lead Co. in Clifton Park.

After the dirt was replaced, the little girl was lead-free. "We caught it in time. She's a gifted kid, won at the science fair two years in a row," Clay said.

One contributing factor in St. Louis is the age of the housing stock. About 90 percent of the homes were built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned. The Health Department estimates that 140,000 housing units in the city contain lead paint.

Quarles is developing a registry so the city can keep track of which homes have been fixed.

"We have one home that poisoned a child 32 times because of poor abatement," she said. "We can't continue to repoison kids and do shoddy work. I want zero tolerance for abatement workers who perform poor work."

Some residents agreed efforts need to improve to remove lead when it's discovered.

Tested positive

Two of Leon Bell's children tested positive for lead after he moved to his sister's century-old home.

He waited nearly 18 months for the lead removal to start. Some workers spent about two months in the house and left, saying it was done.

Bell said old lead paint on the deck was not scraped off, just painted over.

The children's bedrooms on the third floor weren't touched, he said.

"The more I hear about it, the madder I get," he said.

He and his children's mother, Patricia Bell, have already noticed behavior changes in their children.

Both children seem depressed and have memory problems, he said.

"If they had done the right job two years ago, things wouldn't be like this," Bell said.

Kerry Humphrey, a lead abatement supervisor for the city who has worked with the Bells, said he couldn't discuss the case.

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