ST. LOUIS -- Calling the situation an "urgent public health hazard," state health officials released a report Tuesday that said about 28 percent of Herculaneum's children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. In the part of the 2,800-resident town closer to the nation's largest lead smelter, that number is about 45 percent.
The findings are the most comprehensive yet to gauge the extent of lead exposure in Herculaneum, about 30 miles south of St. Louis and home to the 110-year-old Doe Run Co. smelter.
The state Department of Health and Senior Services study, based on blood samples given voluntarily by 935 people last fall, found levels far above the national rate near 3 percent.
"This is extremely high," said Scott Clardy, a public health expert at the health department. "This is far and away the highest rate I've seen anywhere, and it's the reason we declared the site an urgent public health hazard."
Lead exposure is known to hamper brain development in children and cause other health problems. The findings should help officials decide whether the current cleanup efforts will be enough to protect public health.
Tuesday's report urged the Environmental Protection Agency to "take whatever steps they have to make sure the sources of lead levels are eliminated or reduced as soon as possible," Clardy said.
The report also recommended that the EPA and Missouri Department of Natural Resources quickly identify the places in the community where people were most vulnerable to exposure.
Also, health officials should continue a program of lead-exposure awareness education and consider a more detailed study to evaluate the effects of lead on the community's health, the report said.
Paring its emissions
The situation in Herculaneum is severe enough that families are asked to wash hands frequently, leave shoes outside and wash children's toys if used outdoors.
Under orders and oversight by the EPA, the Doe Run Co. is spending millions of dollars to replace yards and reduce air pollution.
The company has been ordered to pare its emissions to meet federal standards by July.
Officials hope those measures, combined with tightened rules for shipping lead to the smelter and awareness education, can bring lead exposure down to acceptable levels.