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Leadville all over again

Column by Hal Walter

Environment – October 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

I’D NEVER REALLY SEEN my child bleed before, but there I was, locked in a chair, and hugging him tightly with both arms as two lab technicians drew a tiny amount of blood from his arm.

Despite my efforts to hold him still, when the needle drove home he jerked his arm just enough to shut off the flow. One of the technicians went to the phone to find out if the tiny amount of blood would be enough to detect heavy metals.

My boy meanwhile screamed so loudly I thought test tubes might shatter.

Otherwise, little Harrison, now 28 months old, has been for the most part withholding comment. In other words, he doesn’t talk, at least not in sentences. He says words here and there, with only some of them having discernible meanings to us. To him I am sure they are perfectly understandable. To us the only thing that makes sense is “mo-peez,” usually spoken in the presence of ice cream.

His delayed development has been a concern, but recent letters from the Environmental Protection Agency make us wonder if there may be an environmental link.

Some years ago, some boneheads — who by the way can expect to hear from me and my team of legal experts if my son or my property is determined to have high levels of lead — made the decision to surface some roads around here with tailings from a nearby lead mine. The EPA says this gravel — waste rock and mill tailings — likely contained high levels of lead.

In fact, in 1998 the Colorado Department of Public Health tested the roads and found high levels of lead on county roads in the area, which is several miles east of Westcliffe. One of these roads happens to be Centennial Drive, leading to the Out There Pack-Burro Ranch and Word Farm.

As a result of those 1998 samples taken from the roads, some area children were given blood tests and some portions of these roads were treated with magnesium chloride to suppress dust. None of the children tested showed high blood levels of lead.

For several years the issue had quietly been fading away, until recently rearing its ugly head again, this time at the prompting of a local dog breeder.

The EPA has sent letters to many area property owners asking for permission to sample soil in their “yards,” which in this neighborhood average about 35 acres. Some of the neighbors signed up immediately, wanting to know if their soil is contaminated or if their health is threatened. Others not only did not give permission, but also voiced strong opinions against the EPA and its testing. The latter have concerns about the EPA’s testing and remediation programs, and also about what this might do to their property values.

Others, like myself, aren’t sure what to do regarding testing the property. But it did occur to me to bypass the issue of dirt and go straight to the blood lab, though I know that other tests such as hair samples and bone X-rays may be needed to completely rule out a lead problem. I also know that lead also can cause dysfunction even at undetectable levels.

THE EPA held a meeting in Westcliffe that I was unable to attend. However, I heard all about it from both sides of the testing argument. Basically, as a result of residents’ concerns voiced at the meeting, the EPA agreed to test road rights-of-way along with the initial properties to determine contamination levels. If high levels are found, they will ask additional property owners if they may take samples. The EPA also allowed property owners to make hand revisions to its testing agreement to indicate that this allows for only one sample of surface soil and driveways, and would not be open-ended into eternity.

These compromises, however, did little to allay the fears of those who are adverse to the testing, and most remain adamantly and vocally opposed. Some don’t believe that lead is even a serious health threat. They say there’s no guarantee that if the EPA finds high levels of lead that the agency will have the funding to clean it up. They also point out that if high levels of lead are found on a property. then this would have to be disclosed on any future sales contract, and thus might reduce its value or salability.

I WONDER IF they would feel just hunky-dory if they sold their property without any such disclosure and, knowing that they had refused testing, later found that due to lead exposure a child living there had developmental problems, or if an adult who bought the home from them developed some sort of illness.

According to health expert and author Phil Maffetone, with whom I’ve worked closely for a number of years, problems due to heavy metal exposure can begin almost immediately after exposure to high amounts, or can result from a buildup of smaller levels over many years. The developing bodies and brains of children are more vulnerable to metals. However, for adults, low-level exposure throughout life can also cause health issues, especially fatigue, immune problems, and cognitive dysfunction.

Heavy metal toxins have been extensively studied and reported in medical journals, and have been shown to impair children’s development even at fairly common levels of exposure. Impairments in attention, memory, learning, IQ and other cognitive dysfunction along with potential physical problems are linked to heavy-metal exposure. In addition, social dysfunction such as problematic classroom behavior and increased delinquency has been linked.

Physical problems associated with heavy-metal toxicity include fatigue, sometimes due to suppression of thyroid function. Numbness or tingling (arms or legs), muscle and joint pain, headaches, and other symptoms can also be associated with metal toxicity.

An informal study, conducted by myself, shows a significant level of cognitive and social dysfunction among residents in this neighborhood. These mental problems include heavily Republican voting tendencies and widespread addiction to Fox News, as well as poor choices in homesite location and questionable livestock management practices.

While blood tests are the most common approach to diagnosing a clear toxicity, even undetectable levels in the blood can cause dysfunction. In more serious exposure, such as lead toxicity, a bone X-ray more easily demonstrates the problem.

In Harrison’s case, he does not often play in the road, but it’s possible he could have been exposed in a more round-about way. His mother is a runner who has exercised on the local roads for years, and thus has been exposed to dust from passing vehicles and the wind. I’ve been told its not out of the question that lead can be stored in a mother’s bones and then released into the bloodstream when breastfeeding.

I went through this sort of heavy-metal debate years ago when I was the editor of the Herald-Democrat newspaper in Leadville, where heavy-metal contamination is no joke. Ironically, one of the EPA representatives on the Westcliffe project was the contact for the Leadville Superfund cleanup. In Leadville, the EPA also wished to test yards for contamination. Some residents complied and others posted signs in their yards warning EPA testers to keep off their property.

YOU REALLY CAN’T BLAME people for being distrustful of the government, but here in the Wet Mountains it was the county government who put the lead on the roads in the first place. Somebody needs to hold the county accountable, along with anybody else responsible for using these tailings to surface local roads.

The difference for me is that I didn’t own property in Leadville — and I didn’t have a son then either. I’ll probably go ahead and sign up with the EPA to test my property. I don’t think I could — now or in the future — sit across from a buyer, perhaps someone with a small child, and not disclose that there may be a problem with lead contamination around here.

Hal Walter, who writes from the Ilse area of the Wet Mountains, often chewed on lead fishing sinkers as a child.