A few days ago, acknowledging several years of new medical research, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lowered their official designation for lead toxicity by 50 percent, from 10 ug/dliter to 5 ug/dliter measured in a person's blood. That increases by about 500 percent the number of children who are considered impaired by lead toxicity.
"There is no safe level (of lead exposure)," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and one of the nation's experts on lead toxicity. "Lead is toxic to the developing brain at low levels. Prenatal exposure causes brain damage." Indeed, third-grade test scores, which are highly correlated with high-school drop out rates, were significantly lower among children exposed to any lead — with blood levels as low as 3 or 4 ug/dliter. Even low levels can cause decreased intelligence and behavior disorders, like aggressive and criminal behavior and the effects can turn up years later.
Experts estimate that my generation lost an average of six IQ points because of the lead allowed in gasoline. Now, nationally the largest source of children's exposure comes from old, leaded paint. But that is not likely the case in Utah. This official announcement from the CDC intensifies the controversy about the 800 lb gorilla of heavy metal contamination on the Wasatch Front — the Kennecott mine and smelter.
In the Kennecott dust cloud that frequently obscures the Oquirrh Mountains is a heavy metal stew of lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury that ultimately permeates our air, water and soil. Even radioactive metals like uranium and thorium are found in Kennecott's coal power plant emissions in low concentrations. Last January, the EPA reaffirmed previous assessments about Kennecott's operations designating the mine as the nation's third largest source of toxic elements released into the environment, and because of Kennecott, Utah ranks third among all states and Salt Lake County ranks third among all counties. Recall that last year Forbes magazine ranked Salt Lake City as the ninth most toxic city in the country, primarily because of Kennecott.
Kennecott officials are quick to dismiss this toxicity ranking and the 200 million pounds of toxic material attributed to their operations by characterizing it as just a scary sounding name for all the dirt, rock and ore that they blast, shovel, haul and crush. In doing so they ignore the fact that all that dirt and rock does in fact have heavy metals in it, causing everyone downwind in Salt Lake and Utah Counties to be on the receiving end of a fine mist of low toxicity every day, 24/7, for decades on end. Heavy metals are not combustible, do not degrade and cannot be destroyed, so the levels in our environment steadily increase over time.
According to the U.S. Economic Policy Institute, each dollar invested in lead paint hazard control results in a return of $17 to $221 in economic benefits to those whose lead exposure is thereby reduced. There is no reason to believe that the flip side of that equation wouldn't be equally descriptive of the economic loss incurred by our community because of the lost intellectual capacity from this constant heavy metal shower rained down upon our children, especially the most vulnerable, those in their mothers' womb.
We recently found out that Utah has the highest rate of autism of any state in the country, one out of every 32 Utah boys. Evidence is mounting that the rising rates of this often tragic condition is likely triggered by environmental exposures, and at the top of that list of suspects are heavy metals.
Public health experts are now recommending that all children be tested for lead between the ages of 1 and 2 years old. Given the Kennecott mine, given our extraordinarily high rates of autism, given this new threshold for lead toxicity, given that the Great Salt Lake has the highest levels of mercury of any body of water in the United States, it is long overdue that Utah develop a strategy to protect our children from heavy metals.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.