Fredericktown yards being tested for lead contamination

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

FREDERICKTOWN, Mo. -- In Madison County, straddled along Southeast Missouri's old lead belt, the mineral is cause for pride and concern. The residue of lead mining that drove the region's economy for 300-plus years is poisoning some of its youngest residents.

The health department in the county dubbed one of the state's "stars" has been responding with aggressive testing of children, assessing of houses, and educating parents and the public. Of 308 children tested last year, 13 percent had elevated blood-lead levels, second only to St. Louis for the highest rate that year.

This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began testing the yards of about 300 homes in Fredericktown for lead contamination. The EPA said the county invited the agency to take soil samples because the town's health risk from lead had not been assessed despite reports of elevated blood-lead levels in children from testing that began in 1996.

"We divided the town into eight sections, and whoever is out mowing their lawn, we ask them if they want their yard sampled," EPA coordinator Heath Smith said Tuesday at a town meeting of health and environmental specialists.

A reading of 400 parts per million is a red flag. Of the 100 yards surveyed so far, some are in the 200-to-1,000 range. Most range from 200 to 800, Smith said.

The residents get results of the free test immediately, Smith said. The EPA recommends cleanup for anyone whose yard registers a high lead level, and whose child has an elevated blood-lead level -- that is, a reading of 10 micrograms per deciliter.

Many Fredericktown properties with high lead readings use chat, the coarse waste from the milling process. It's used commonly in driveways, foundations, sand boxes and gardens.

"We live in a lead environment with chat piles and chat sand boxes," said Becky Hunt, county health department administrator.

'You're numb to it'

She and Madison County Presiding Commissioner Robert Mooney, who grew up in the Fredericktown area, admitted to public ignorance about the dangers of lead exposure.

"We still battle the attitude, 'I played in that stuff, it can't hurt me,'" Mooney said. "When you grow up around it, you're numb to it."

For years, the Madison County Health Department has been working against such thinking.

It sponsors a public education campaign about the dangers of lead exposure, tests the county's children, and works with parents to address the problem.

Children 6 months to 6 years are especially vulnerable because their bodies are developing, and their hand-to-mouth behavior puts them at higher risk of picking up contaminated dirt or objects, said Lorena Anderson, health educator with Missouri's Department of Health and Senior Services. Lead poisoning can cause behavior disorders, slow growth and development, low IQs, and anemia.

Since late 1999, the EPA has identified five sites outside of Fredericktown where lead mining once flourished and lead tailings still pose a public health risk or environmental hazard. The federal agency is negotiating with Doe Run, NL Industries, and Anschutz Mining Co. to remediate two of them. No responsible party has been identified for the three others, said EPA remedial project manager, John Cook.

One cluster of mines north of Fredericktown at Harmony Lake was found to have "tremendously high" lead levels. The area once was used in the mining process and since has been made into a recreational area, Cook said.

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