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Lead victims in mining region say their health was hurt

September 13
00:33 2010

SMELTERVILLE, Idaho: They call themselves “the leaded.”

They grew up in the shadow of a giant lead smelter here, and were contaminated with some of the biggest lead releases in the nation’s history.

They complain they have suffered physical and emotional problems their entire lives, with little medical help from the government. They are speaking up now to encourage more people in this mining region to get their children tested for lead exposure.

“I tell everybody I’m leaded,” said Jeannie Stancik, 48, of adjacent Kellogg. “That’s how I deal with it.”

She recalled going to school next door to the smelter as a child and always having her mouth taste like blood because of the lead particles in the air.

Her sister, Mary Brewer, 46, of Kellogg, showed a piece of thin yellow paper issued by the State of Idaho in 1975 with the results of her original blood lead test. It showed her level at 53 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, a reading which at the time was classified as “slightly elevated.” These days, a reading of 10 is enough to raise official concern, and no amount of lead is considered safe
“She always had a mouthful of dirt,” Stancik joked, regarding a major path for lead into the bodies of children.

Despite a lack of scientific proof, these residents believe their childhood exposure caused illnesses that plague their adult lives, including attention deficit disorder, depression, sciatic problems, arthritis and others. But many cannot afford medical insurance or expensive tests.

Rocky Hill, 55, grew up in the Silver Valley and now lives in Stevensville, Mont. He registered a blood lead level of 40 as a child, and has been sick much of his life.

“The dirt we played in was nothing but lead, there was no grass,” Hill said.

A group of people who grew up in the Kellogg area met with a reporter for The Associated Press amid new reports that many parents in the Kellogg community are no longer having their children tested because of the stigma attached to lead exposure, including an increased potential for learning and behavior disorders.

“People don’t really want to know the truth,” said Cass Davis, 45, who lives in Moscow, Idaho. “I flunked the first grade and was sent to be tested for retardation.”

The Bunker Hill Mining Co. lead smelter operated here for decades, releasing lead the entire time. The biggest releases occurred in 1974 and 1975, when the smelter was operated for six months after a fire damaged its lead containment system. About 35 tons of lead per month fell on the Kellogg area, and children got dizzy and developed stomach cramps. Kids living closest to the smelter had blood lead levels well over 100, which could have damaged their mental abilities.

The area was declared a Superfund site in the early 1980s, shortly after the smelter closed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has spent nearly 20 years removing lead from the environment here, and claims great success because the average blood lead level of children has dropped to about normal, which is 2 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

Critics scoff at those results, because only a handful of children are being tested.

Health experts counter that progress is obvious.

Jerry Cobb, of the local Panhandle Health District, said about 50 percent of the children in the Silver Valley had readings above 10 in 1989. Now almost none register that high.

Dan Opalski, head of Superfund work for the EPA regional office in Seattle, said the tests show the cleanup has made “significant progress.”

The testing of children is voluntary. About 10 children were tested in the Kellogg area this year, out of an estimated 500 kids under age 9, Cobb said. More than 400 children in this community of 2,000 people were tested each year in the 1990s.

But even the EPA doesn’t consider the current level of testing to be “statistically representative of blood-lead levels for children in the Silver Valley,” said Cami Grandinetti of the EPA office in Seattle.




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