PO Box 3568
Eureka, CA 95502
by Don Fitz, Green Party of St. Louis
St. Louis has an epidemic of lead poisoning. While the US averages 2% of children under six years being lead poisoned, the rate is at least 25% in St. Louis (and could be far higher). Yet the mayor and Health Department play politics.
Two events have occurred in recent months which bring home the seriousness of the problem. First, research has shown the biological link between lead and violence. Second, the scandal plaguing Mayor Francis Slay's Health Department indicates it does not have the competency to deal with the lead crisis.
Lead & violence
During the 1980's evidence relating lead to violence mounted. A report by the American Chemical Society which is summarized in the August 5, 2004 Rachel's Environment & Health News (No. 797) details connections between brain chemistry, lead, alcohol, and violence.
The brain chemical serotonin inhibits impulsiveness. Serotonin helps people to think before they act. People with low levels of serotonin find it harder to consider the consequences of what they do.
Research verifies that prisoners with low serotonin levels commit more frequent aggressive behavior and more violent behavior or are more likely to have set fires impulsively. Research also shows that lead reduces levels of serotonin.
Lead also hurts a child's ability to succeed in school and is associated with low self-esteem, irritability and frustration. An adult who had problems in school because of lead poisoning might have a hard time keeping a job and could easily get into trouble if the person has a hard time controlling anger.
Additionally, alcohol metabolizes serotonin. This means that someone with low levels of serotonin from lead poisoning will have even lower levels after drinking alcohol. About half of all violent crimes are associated with alcohol. In addition to the human suffering, there is enormous cost in medical bills and destruction of property from violence associated with lead poisoning and alcohol.
A known health danger
Until the 1950's lead was added to most paint to make it more durable. Aging lead paint becomes dust when it is rubbed between parts of a window or falls off in flakes. Lead poisoning happens when this dust is ingested or inhaled. Scraping paint without proper precautions can worsen the problem.
Lead poisoning in children first was reported in 1892. By 1904 the major cause was identified as dust from lead-based paint. Lead reduces performance in school because it lowers intelligence, makes it difficult to pay attention, and harms hearing. These effects stay with a person through adulthood. A 1996 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that lead is associated with aggression and delinquency in boys. At high levels, lead can lead to kidney disease, blindness, seizures and death.
Crisis in St. Louis
In November 2003, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's office released its report, Lead Safe in St. Louis. The Mayor's office falsely described it as "a comprehensive action plan for the eradication of childhood lead poisoning in St. Louis."
Less than four months later, the Mayor's lead program was wracked by a media exposé. A March 14, 2004 editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch critiqued the Health Department for its "apathy" and "gross incompetence." Thought the Health Department had known for three years that tests for lead poisoning in thousands of children could have errors, it failed to notify parents. Instead, Department bosses lied about their knowledge of lead test results. Then they attempted to create the impression that the rate of lead poisoning had gone down by testing more children from wealthier homes and fewer low income children at high risk.
The Post-Dispatch editorial did not mention that lead poisoning has long been a prime example of environmental racism. Public health authorities in Baltimore began a lead screening program in 1931. After 20 years of collecting data they documented that lead poisoning was 7.5 times higher in black than white children. St. Louis has one of the highest rates of lead contamination in the country, with 55% of children poisoned in some African-American neighborhoods.
A disturbing aspect of the Mayor's plan is that it does not consider a child to be lead poisoned unless tests show more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (mcg/deciliter). Months before the Mayor's report, the April 12, 2003 New England Journal of Medicine documented a loss of seven IQ points in children with lead poisoning under 10 mcg/ deciliter. Rachel's No. 797 lists several studies showing that "at levels as low as 1 to 3 mcg/deciliter, lead reduces children's IQ, diminishes math and reading skills, and changes behavior for the worse."
Mayor Slay intends to continue using children as lead detectors. This means waiting until after a child is found poisoned before a team is sent to test the home. In contrast, a truly preventive program would look at geographical areas of the City that have the highest level of lead contamination (zip codes 63107 and 63118) and test homes on a block by block basis to find those that need remediation. This would target contaminated homes before a child is lead poisoned.
According to St. Louis Health & Environmental Justice (HEJ), "only about 40% of City children are tested. Homes are not inspected for 32% of children who test positive. A major problem with the Health Department's approach is that most poisoned children live in rental property and move frequently. The City should be devoting energy to testing rental units that are likely to have lead problems."
Perhaps most upsetting about the Mayor's plan is its political treatment of the dire need for "safe houses." Currently, children found to be poisoned are treated and returned to homes with high levels of lead to be poisoned again. What is needed is homes certified to be free of lead that families can move into after a child is treated for lead poisoning.
The Mayor's plan merely asks the City Lead Coordinator to establish safe temporary housing. It does not have any concrete measures that would make this crucial step happen. Given the history of incompetence and dishonesty by Slay appointees in the past, there is no reason for confidence that St. Louis children will have sufficient lead-free housing.
Costs of clean up
Though it may appear expensive to clean up lead, it actually saves far more money by lowering costs of medical care, special education and criminal behavior. "In 2000, the federal government estimated that it costs $9000 to fully remediate an average lead-contaminated home and that complete remediation of all pre-1960 housing would cost the nation $16.6 billion per year for 10 years." [Rachel's 797] Benefits could reach $43.3 billion per year.
The Slay administration is ultimately responsible for the massive mismanagement of lead money in St. Louis. The St. Louis program remediated (cleaned up) lead in 600 residences over a four year period. This pathetically slow pace is what causes HEJ to conclude that the Mayor's plan "will fail in its stated goal of cutting lead poisoning in half by 2005."
In contrast, the lead clean-up program in Milwaukee remediated 5000 residences in five years with federal money and additional residences through private donations. Part of the reason that Milwaukee is so successful is that much of its clean-up focuses on windows. The overwhelming majority of lead dust comes from opening and closing windows. Thus, Milwaukee spent an average $1785 to remediate a residence.
The bigger problem in St. Louis is the lead poisoning establishment and the large number of officials receiving bloated salaries. This drains money that should be going into creating lead-free residences.
Dealing with the problem
What is saddest about the human cost of mismanagement of the lead epidemic by Mayor Slay is that lead poisoning is 100% preventable. Children should not have their lives destroyed because politicians squander money that should go toward lead reduction.
The goals that St. Louis lead expert Dr. Daniel Berg outlined in the Spring 2004 issue of Synthesis/Regeneration should be the cornerstone of any program to free St. Louis of lead poisoning: