St. Louis, Missouri, has a severe lead poisoning crisis, far worse than Flint’s. With news surrounding Flint, Michigan’s water filtration and lead poisoning issues, more and more cities are being called out.
Lead exposure disproportionately affects St. Louis families in low-income and rental areas but, the problem is not limited to the water supply. There, lead is a staple in the community. Missouri is the largest producer of lead ore and by-products. Plus, over half of all the city’s homes were built before 1978 and decorated with lead-contaminated paint.
The result? Over 1,000 confirmed cases of children exposed to unsafe levels of lead in St. Louis each year, with two-year-olds at highest risk.
Recent lead testing reports identified over 3,500 children under six years old with unsafe lead levels, and an additional 268 with confirmed toxic lead poisoning. Adults in St. Louis were also found to be at high-risk. In 2014, nearly 3,000 tested had poisonous levels of lead in their bloodstream.
These consistently high numbers make Flint’s crisis seem small in comparison. But, few are talking about the widespread problem poisoning families in St. Louis.
Down Side of Lead Poisoning
Lead poisoning is a buildup of lead in the body’s system following exposure over a period of time. Sometimes hard to detect, lead poisoning causes a range of symptoms, from abdominal pain, fatigue, hyperactivity, and irritability to developmental delays, neurological changes, and memory loss. It can even be fatal.
Jack Caravanos, a public health professor at City University of New York, states, “Think of an entire society that’s impaired, an entire village that’s having trouble learning how to read, how to process numbers. Your Einsteins just won’t be there.”
Although lead poisoning is catastrophic in lower-income regions throughout the U.S., focus on lead in Mexico and other developing countries has allowed the crisis in America to be overlooked.
St. Louis Battled Lead Poison Crisis for Decades
So what has the City of St. Louis done to eliminate the irreversible poisoning known to cause developmental and learning disabilities or even death?
The city’s battle has been ongoing for more than 75 years. In 1993, the state established its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) to increase blood lead testing and follow-up services.
In 2004, the City and County of St. Louis, along with the Missouri Department of Health, aimed to significantly reduce and even eradicate lead poisoning with the CDC supervised “Childhood Lead Poisoning Elimination Plan“.
Receiving over $4 million in HUD and local funding, the metro area attempted to develop education, intervention and prevention programs to diminish the rate of elevated blood lead levels by 2010. Reformation efforts removing lead-contaminated paint from hundreds of homes in high-risk areas reduced the number of extreme cases between 2005 and 2009 in children under 6-years-old from over 1,000 to less than 500. But, in 2010, the city’s numbers were higher than the national average and have remained so while programs have slowly faded away. Even daycares stopped the strict enforcement of lead screening laws.
A few miles away, the problem continues in the East St. Louis community where only 3,950 children under six-years-old were tested in 2012. The community is 98 percent African American, and most live below the poverty level. Nearly 401 children were found to be exposed to unsafe levels of lead, 74 at extreme levels for kids.
Screening for Lead Poisoning
Researchers at St. Louis University discovered small amounts of lead in adults can be tolerable but, even low levels in infants and children can be a health hazard. According to new federal standards, poisoning or toxic lead levels in adults is anything greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood and 5 micrograms for children. Above 45 mg, the lead poisoning can enter the bones and remain in the body for extended periods of time.
Children enrolling in daycare, receiving Medicaid or living in high-risk areas in St. Louis are required to partake in lead level tests. Parents with children younger than six-years-old are highly encouraged to also have testing annually. To find out more about testing in your local area, contact your local department of health.
With little being done to end this ongoing battle, the silent killer in St. Louis — lead poisoning — seems to be here for years to come.
[Image by Jim Cole/AP Photo]