For decades, the Exide battery melting plant emitted lead, arsenic and other pollutants into the air and soil in and around Vernon, a Southeast Los Angeles neighborhood. The plant was mostly decommissioned in 2014 and finally shuttered in 2015, but it took California until this year to gather and report data on 10,000 contaminated homes nearby, where hundreds of children had high blood lead levels. It took another year for the state to set aside money to start a cleanup program. That will mostly likely start in 2017 – long after the damage was done.
Even though we have understood lead’s health consequences for decades, a lack of funding, data and standardization of testing in the U.S. has made it nearly impossible to know about problem areas until the impacts are too late to prevent. Seven out of 11 Western states plus Alaska do not report their lead levels to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has a national database of blood lead levels, making this region’s data the most elusive in the country.
Every year, half a million children in the U.S. suffer from lead poisoning. Most exposure comes from lead-based paint, which was banned in 1978 but is still found in many homes. But high lead levels are also found in water and soil across the U.S. including in rural areas. So, even though Western states don’t have as many large urban areas where lead risk is perceived as the highest, small, widely distributed sources of lead pollution in rural areas still pose a major risk to children. “The perspective of the big cities tend to drown out the smaller communities,” says Bruce Lanphear, professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who studies lead in children. “Because of that, certain (sources of lead) like mining and milling and smelting, game meat and shooting ranges get less attention.”
For instance, years after being abandoned, mining sites still pollute the soil and air in Montana. According to Montana’s state health department, Silver Bow and Lewis & Clark counties, which have rich mining histories, have greater numbers of lead poisoning than other areas in the state. Other Superfund sites, like in Kellogg, Idaho, and Midvale, Utah, still feel the residual effects of lead smelting and mining as well.
Hunting and gun ranges also pose a bigger threat than most people realize: in 2015, a Seattle Times investigation found that the majority of shooting ranges in the country had lead violations from gunshot residue in the air and on the ground, and aren’t inspected properly. Tests by the CDC in 2009 showed that children who ate wild game like venison had 50 percent more lead in their bloodstream than those who didn’t.
High blood lead levels, defined to be above five micrograms per deciliter in children, cause damage to the brain and nervous system and lead to problems in speech and hearing. Lead poisoning also slows growth and development, leading to learning and behavior problems that have been proven to increase criminal behavior. Research shows low-income minority populations are disproportionately affected by lead poisoning.
Blood lead level tests are covered by Medicaid, and doctors are supposed to report any child who tests above 5 micrograms per deciliter. But the decision to test is ultimately up to pediatricians and individual state health departments rely on doctors to send in information on patients’ elevated levels. If pediatricians report that a group of children in a certain area are testing high, the state health department goes to the area to test soil, water and paint to find the cause.
In turn, the CDC relies on reliable state reporting: 29 states, Washington D.C., and a few cities receive federal funding for lead poisoning prevention and are required to report their data quarterly, and some other states volunteer data. But even in states that do report, county-level data is incomplete. In 2014, California only reported Los Angeles County, which did not show numbers for neighborhoods around Exide. And in Oregon, 30 of 36 counties reported, but in some, less than 10 children were tested.
Washington is the only Western state to have recently received funding from the CDC, so it will have to start reporting the number of children tested and how many had elevated levels. Nevada lost CDC funding for lead tests years ago, so the department has no full-time staff dedicated to reporting results even though officials say they are aware it’s a problem. Alaska informally reports to the CDC and periodically puts state lead levels on the health department website. Montana and Idaho require elevated levels to be reported to the state health department but don’t report to the CDC. Wyoming doesn’t have a lead reporting program at all.
The Flint water crisis and now the Exide crisis have driven a flurry of resources and attention to the problems with America’s lead testing processes. It seems to be leading to some policy changes: for example, in Washington state, the health department is going to review its testing process for lead in school water, and in California, Gov. Jerry Brown fast-tracked $176 million to start to clean up the neighborhood around Exide.
Jane Williams, director of California Communities Against Toxics, has been pushing for years for more soil screening, especially near old mining and smelting sites like Exide, and for more local tracking. Instead, she says, right now “we’re using kids as lead detectors.”