Why doesn’t the West report its lead data?

Lead poisoning in children is underreported nationwide, and the West’s lack of data is particularly glaring.

 

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.

To find out if Flint was an anomaly, University of Michigan researchers mapped the lead testing rates in every state using CDC and state health department data. The map below shows that 10 Western states do not report their data, though the CDC says New Mexico reported some counties' results in 2014. Alaska voluntarily sends its results to the agency, and Washington will start reporting its lead test results soon. 

A map shows lead testing varies dramatically by each state, and many Western states do not report data to the CDC at all.

“We do not have a contract or other mechanism to require reporting, and in many of the states we don’t fund, there are no staff to do this work,” says Bernadette Burden, spokesperson for the CDC. She added that the agency can’t regulate or enforce laws, so it relies on public health partners at the state level to deal with health issues.

Although most Western states do collect some state-level data, according to calls High Country News made to every Western state health department, the significance of the data they do track isn’t always heavily emphasized. Many states and healthcare providers either don’t see it as a top-priority public health problem or say they don’t have enough information from medical providers or funding from the CDC to report consistently.

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.

But most attention is still focused on more commonly known sources of lead pollution. If that doesn’t change, lead poisoning risks will continue to remain high in much of the West. 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. That would let public health experts more effectively intercept exposure from any source before children are poisoned. Instead, she says, right now “we’re using kids as lead detectors.”

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets

High Country News Classifieds
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • FRESHWATER SCIENTIST
    The Freshwater Scientist provides technical and scientific support and leadership as a subject matter resource (SMR) for conservation initiatives in surface and groundwater hydrology including...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.