Polluted areas affect families’ health

Studies find high levels of lead in blood

Rodney and Heather Woodcock didn’t know anything was wrong with their two sons last year until the results of blood tests came back.

Both had high levels of lead.

“They both act normal,” Rodney Woodcock said on a day in February as the boys, Ryan, 2, and Haden, 3, played with toys and ambled around the front room of their home on the outskirts of Treece.

At the time, the Woodcocks had lived for a little more than a year on their 40-acre property in an area with a history steeped in lead and zinc mining. It also is an area that became heavily polluted as a result of the mining waste carried by the wind from chat piles, and polluted water seeping out of abandoned mines into streams and other bodies of water.

Before moving to Treece, the Woodcocks lived just across the state border near Picher, Okla., another lead and zinc mining town with pollution problems. They had plenty of reasons to have their sons tested for lead.

Tests showed Haden had a lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter while his brother registered a 9.

A level 10 is considered lead poisoning, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Children with levels below 10 but 5 and higher should be monitored. A healthy diet can help lower levels.

The Woodcock brothers, Ryan, left, two years-old, and Haden, three years-old, both tested high for lead levels in their blood. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment considers anything above five as something to be concerned about and ten and above is lead poisoning. Haden, who was born with a clubfoot, a birth defect, tested the highest with a rating of ten.

Lead levels that are higher than 14 need special attention and more frequent testing. At levels 45 and higher, medical evaluations are necessary and medication may be needed.

“We are concerned about any (lead) level in children. It just depends on the exposure,” said Michelle Miller, KDHE’s director of the Kansas Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

Lead affects brain and neuro-behavior development in children. The effects might not be known until children are older. The state program targets children who are 6 or younger, especially children 12 to 24 months old, because that is when the greatest amount of growth occurs, Miller said. High lead levels can cause symptoms such as fatigue and nausea, she said.

High levels of lead in adults also can cause neurological problems. In adults, lead levels are usually industrial or job-related, Miller said.

“We worry about pregnant women as well as children and babies,” Miller said.

The town of Galena, less than 20 miles from Treece, also had pollution problems as a result of a century of lead and zinc mining. A 1991 study of more than 50 children in Galena showed that nearly 10 percent had blood lead levels of 10 or higher, according to KDHE. Since then, many of the pollution problems have been cleared, although problems remain. A follow-up study involving 100 children conducted in 2000 showed a decline. The percentage of children with levels of 10 or higher had dropped to 6 percent.

There was no KDHE testing in Treece. KDHE representatives now say they don’t know why testing wasn’t done in Treece. Residents such as the Woodcocks have taken it upon themselves to have their children tested.

Mining wastes aren’t the only cause of lead poisoning. It also can be caused by old paint or other materials often found in pre-1978 houses.

After the Woodcock children were tested, the federal Environmental Protection Agency dug out and replaced about a foot of soil in the yard around the Woodcocks’ house. The rest of the property was not remediated, the Woodcocks said. They had not had their children retested as of February.

About 100 yards from the Woodcocks’ house is a massive sinkhole. It is more than 100 feet deep and 50 yards across. The sinkhole, which area residents say began forming 15 years ago, is surrounded by a fence.

Rodney Woodcock said he likes where he lives. He is not worried about the sinkhole, saying its size has not significantly increased in years.

“If they would just clean everything up I’d be happy,” he said.