It’s clear that lead exposure is a problem for Missouri’s children. An estimated 4.5% have elevated levels of lead in their blood, more than almost any other state in the country.
What’s far more difficult is figuring out where children are getting exposed to lead, said Carlton Waterhouse, President Joe Biden’s pick for one of the top environmental posts in the nation.
Children can be exposed to lead through paint in older homes, lead pipes bringing drinking water to their home or school or contaminated soils at playgrounds or in their yards. And children near small, regional airports might be exposed to lead from planes that still use leaded fuel.
“Because we don’t just know where the sources are, we actually find that children sometimes have an elevated blood lead and then we have to track down where the sources are…and that’s the kind of difficult challenge in terms of the knowledge gap that we’re working to bridge,” Waterhouse said in an interview with The Independent.
Waterhouse is awaiting confirmation to become assistant administrator of the Office of Land and Emergency Management at the Environmental Protection Agency, which includes overseeing the superfund program, tasked with cleaning up some of the most contaminated sites in the country.
He visited Missouri last month ahead of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week to visit one of the state’s largest superfund sites in Missouri’s “Old Lead Belt,” south of St. Louis, where workers mined for and smelted lead for about 200 years, leaving behind huge amounts of waste.
The site, composed of eight large areas of mine waste spanning 110 square miles, has been under EPA cleanup for years. The total expected cost — $130 million, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Now, crews are working to clean up lead contamination in residents’ yards where, for years, people used top soil contaminated with lead. More than 1,400 yards with lead concentrations far exceeding 400 parts per million, the level the EPA considers hazardous, have been cleaned up in the last decade.
Lead is a dangerous toxin that can lead to brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development and learning, behavioral, hearing and speech problems in children. For decades it was used in paint, fuel and pipes.
And while Waterhouse said the levels of lead in children’s blood has come down considerably in the last several decades, health officials are finding even small amounts can be harmful.
“While we’ve reduced the blood levels across the country,” he said, “we’ve also found that even at lower levels, blood lead is still a problem for too many children.”
The legacy of lead mining and smelting means Missouri faces an especially difficult road to reduce the level of lead in children’s blood, he said.
Biden’s infrastructure bill contains more money for superfund sites, which Waterhouse said would help alleviate a backlog of sites — in need of lead mediation or cleanup of other toxins — that are ready for cleanup but don’t have the funds to get started.
It would also help speed cleanups at the sites already in progress, like those in Missouri, and waive states’ share of the costs. Missouri has 33 sites on the National Priorities List, including 13 funded by EPA and DNR because there is not a responsible party to conduct the work. DNR estimates its share of those projects — 11 of them for lead contamination — is $56.3 million, 10% of the total cost. How much it spends each year depends on how much work is done.
Brian Quinn, a spokesman for the agency, said getting more EPA funds for those projects would be “very significant” for DNR.
The EPA also announced late last month a new strategy for reducing lead exposure and alleviating disparities. Black and Hispanic children and kids from low-income families, the draft document says, are found to have far higher blood lead levels than their white peers.
The draft, which is available for public comment, outlines steps the EPA will take to tighten lead regulations, revisit recommendations for renovating buildings with lead-based paint and work with other federal agencies, including Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Food and Drug Administration to ensure lead is not harming residents of public housing or entering food supplies.
Waterhouse said working across agencies and with local governments to mitigate lead exposure is a “massive task,” but that superfund cleanups make a substantial difference in the levels of lead in children.
“A lot of this lead is not just dispersed all over. It’s in hotspots,” he said. “And when we can find those hotspots in those places and we can bring all the different resources to bear…we can really make a difference in the lives of children.”