MONTPELIER -- Global warming grabs more headlines than lead contamination, but the heavy metal actually poses a more imminent environmental health threat in Vermont. Lead poisoning sickens more than 300 Vermont children each year, and costs the state at least $80 million annually.
That's according to a group of housing and medical professionals who addressed the House Human Services Committee at a lead poisoning hearing last Thursday at the Statehouse. Most of the eight who participated are members of a joint initiative by the Attorney General's Office and the Department of Health. The group, convened in January, is pushing legislators to revise Vermont's 12-year-old lead law next session; they hope to offer draft legislation to the committee next fall.
They're also brainstorming ways to educate the public about the issue; the Burlington Lead Program, for example, is sponsoring "Jimmy Got Better," a play about lead poisoning at Burlington High School this Thursday, May 4. The speakers lamented that most Vermonters lack basic information about how to prevent lead poisoning, despite public information campaigns, a law that spells out how to deal with lead contamination, and 100 years of science showing that ingesting lead is harmful.
Ingesting large quantities of lead -- either by eating it or by breathing in contaminated dust -- can cause convulsions or death. Even small doses in children have been linked to kidney damage, anemia, central nervous system disorders, and learning and behavior disorders such as ADHD. Children who ingest lead may not even show symptoms, but the toxin can reduce their IQs or impair their growth.
Lead poisoning can also increase the size of special-education programs and the number of people who rely on social services, or are sent to prison. One national study cited at Thursday's hearing showed that 37 percent of white male inmates have elevated blood lead levels.
The biggest health risks come from the lead that was used in gasoline and from lead paint. Lead was removed from paint in 1978, but 70 percent of the state's dwellings were built before that year. As that paint deteriorates or is improperly removed, it creates lead dust and contaminates the soil. According to Kevin Doering, environmental health chief at the DOH, lead levels around the drip lines of some Vermont houses exceed levels found at Superfund sites.
Annie Galloway, a South Burlington parent, spoke about lead contamination at the apartment on South Prospect Street in Burlington where she and her husband lived until recently with their 2-year-old daughter. Although all lead paint had been removed from the inside, there was still some outside, and she often swept lead paint chips off the porch.
Last September, when Galloway saw her daughter Maitri put a paint chip in her mouth, she took the girl to the doctor, who measured her blood lead level at 12 micrograms per deciliter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers anything over 10 as dangerous.
A contractor who inspected the property explained that in addition to the paint chips, the family cat was probably also tracking lead dust into the house. He recommended removing the lead paint and doing an extensive -- and expensive -- cleaning. The family chose to move instead.
Maitri's lead levels have since declined, and Galloway said she seems to be fine. But her doctor visit was disturbing all the same. The doctor said, 'Level 12 is not a concern; level 20 is when something needs to be done," Galloway reported. Vermont's lead law describes a child with level 20 as "severely lead poisoned."
Jim McNamara, director of Lead Safe Bellows Falls, called Vermont's lead problem "one of the best-kept secrets in the state." He regularly quizzes education and health-care professionals about lead poisoning and prevention, with disappointing results. The average score is 60 out of a possible 100, McNamara said. "These are the professionals you'd hope would know the most about this. The knowledge level is extremely low across the board."
The ignorance extends to contractors and to many real estate agents and apartment owners, he added. When he was recently looking for an apartment, he was shown plenty that contained lead paint, and was "astonished by the things that were said to me," he recalled.
The state's lead law requires rental property owners to inform tenants about lead paint hazards, and to use essential maintenance practices for dwellings that contain lead paint. But the law lacks any enforcement provisions to compel compliance. McNamara's group would like that to change.
They also recommended that the state institute mandatory lead testing for all 1- and 2-year-olds. Early intervention can ameliorate the damage caused by lead poisoning, but today just 75 percent of Vermont's 1-year-olds and 35 percent of 2-year-olds are tested. So while more than 300 Vermont children tested positive for lead levels higher than 10 last year, the actual number of lead-poisoned children is likely much higher.
The Attorney General's Office and Department of Health are also investigating how to pay for their recommendations. A massive education, testing and abatement campaign will be costly. Rental unit renovations alone could total a billion dollars.
But lead poisoning is preventable, and McNamara insisted that it's worth the effort. "A lead-poisoned child today," he said, "will be the state's ward in the future."