Heavy-Metal Racket

John Chamis and other residents of lead-contaminated Herculaneum are tired of getting jerked around by regulators and by Doe Run. They're demanding answers -- and results.

When she was growing up in the area, Warden says, nobody expressed concern about lead or the smelter: "Being naïve, we thought the government kept that place from harming anyone."

Now she was the government -- and the more she learned, the more concerned she became. She urged sister-in-law Robyn Warden to have her young kids tested. "She did that in thoughts of 'Well, get them tested, find out nothing's wrong, and we'll be OK,'" says Robyn. But when the results came back for Grace and Aaron Warden in June 2000, they were anything but OK. Grace, just 20 months old, tested at 32 micrograms per deciliter; Aaron, then 3-and-a-half, tested at 20. "It was a bit of a shock. We had no idea, no idea," Robyn says. By October 2000, those readings had skyrocketed to dangerous levels -- Grace's was 44, Aaron's 26.

The Jefferson County Health Department, Robyn says, seemed intent on identifying every source of lead exposure they could -- other than the smelter, located less than a quarter-mile from their house on Church Street. "They were focusing on all the lead paint, possible paint on a slide we have in the backyard, three doorjambs with lead paint on it, foreign jewelry, antique furniture -- they kept grabbing at straws." Testing eventually identified the primary source of lead inside the house: old carpeting that had been saturated with lead dust. Tests showed levels at a stunningly high 200,000 parts per million, she says. Yet even after the carpet was replaced, Aaron and Grace's blood-lead levels continued to hover at dangerous levels -- and in the month before they left Herculaneum, they were still high -- Grace's was at 24, Aaron's 18. There were symptoms -- stomach cramping, vomiting, nosebleeds, pain. Aaron woke up "every morning" complaining of stomach cramps and then threw up. And Grace? "Every night, she'd just cry and cry and cry," Robyn Warden says. "It wasn't a cry like a colicky cry; it was like a tightening. It was just a cramping cry."

Jennifer Silverberg
Warning signs went up in Herculaneum in early September.
Jennifer Silverberg
Warning signs went up in Herculaneum in early September.

Robyn became convinced that kids were being exposed to lead from plant emissions. "After the carpet was replaced, their lead levels dropped by half, and then it stabilized. I was told over and over again, if the exposure was removed, their lead levels would continue to fall. They didn't. And in May, I let the kids play out front because I had kind of cloistered 'em in for a few months, and their lead levels both went up. And they did nothing but breathe outside. They didn't dig, they didn't get dirty, they just played out on the front porch. When they came in, they took baths. They didn't just get their hands washed, they took baths when they came in. And their lead levels still went up."

Robyn was advised by state health-department employees to keep Aaron and Grace inside. "I was not to let my children go outside; I was not to open my windows and doors; we were to clean ourselves thoroughly and constantly. Basically it's like living in a toxic zone," she says. In August, after Aaron and Grace's story received news coverage, Doe Run agreed to buy the Wardens' house. Robyn and her family moved to De Soto, but that didn't end matters. Aaron and Grace are among 16 plaintiffs, ranging in age from 3 to 25, in a personal-injury lawsuit filed in Hillsboro on Sept. 21 against Doe Run. Barbara Shepard, a Doe Run vice president and spokeswoman, says the company won't discuss individual cases, including the Wardens'.

When company officials discuss lead poisoning in Herculaneum, they point to a series of studies that seem to suggest average blood-lead levels have been trending lower. In a 1975 study of several smelter sites in the U.S., the average blood-level level among Herculaneum children under the age of 6 years was 18.5 micrograms per deciliter. By the time of a 1984 study funded by Doe Run, that average had dropped to 13.5. In 1992, in another Doe Run-funded study, it was down to 10.7.

In August 2000, Doe Run funded yet another study that tested women of childbearing age and children under age 6 who lived within a 1.5-mile radius of the smelter. The average blood-lead level of the 60 children in the survey, including 18 who lived outside of Herculaneum, was 6.5 micrograms per deciliter, prompting Doe Run to announce "encouraging public-health news" -- a 39 percent drop in blood-lead levels since 1992. Nine of the children in the survey, or 15 percent, had blood-lead levels greater than 10. The results, at least compared with those from earlier studies, may have been encouraging, but were they accurate? Robyn Warden believes the Jefferson County Health Department, which conducted the survey for Doe Run, understated blood-lead levels. Grace tested at 32 in June and 37 in September at Jefferson Memorial Hospital and, yet, in the Doe Run-commissioned test in August, she tested at 25.6, the lowest she'd score until just before the family moved away.

Though no one disputes the fact that blood-lead levels are declining nationwide -- largely as a result of bans on lead paint and leaded gasoline -- just how dramatic an improvement Herculaneum has seen isn't clear. When the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, tried this year to re-examine results of older blood-lead screenings, the underlying data, especially from the earliest studies, were incomplete or missing. ATSDR became involved in Herculaneum at the request of a community-advisory group that formed in April, just before the consent order was finalized.

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