St. Joseph has more kids with high levels of lead in their blood than Flint, Michigan, a city that’s battled poison in its water supply for years.
Unlike in Flint, the problem in St. Joseph isn’t caused by drinking water, but by older homes and certain types of paint. According to the most recent data made available by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, 15 percent of kids 6 years old and younger in St. Joseph have an elevated level of lead in their blood. The national average is 4 percent.
“This is a very critical problem if we have higher lead levels here than in Flint, Michigan, for goodness sake,” St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray said.
A host of government agencies convened in St. Joseph recently to discuss the problem.
Dr. Cynthia Brownfield, a Mosaic Life Care physician, told the panel of agencies that she actually defied the city’s Landmark Commission to replace more than 60 windows in her historic home after her child was found to have a higher-than-average amount of lead in her blood.
McMurray said he’s OK with Brownfield going against the commission, citing a need to balance historic preservation with health concerns.
“We have to temper our desire to be historically accurate with abating lead,” McMurray said.
McMurray said he’s been working with the Environmental Protection Agency and other state and local agencies to lower the amount of lead in the city after he first received word of the problem early in his term.
“Our health department is on that, they’re working on it,” McMurray said. “The older neighborhoods we have to teach people how to do this correctly.”
He said those who cannot afford to replace their own windows, like Brownfield, can contact the city to apply for grants and other assistance.
According to to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning symptoms may include developmental delay, irritability and vomiting.
The EPA’s regional administrator, Jim Gulliford, was at the meeting in St. Joseph. He sought to assure the public that the Trump administration is taking the issue of lead in communities seriously, despite the fact that the president’s proposed budget for 2020 would reduce the EPA’s budget by more a third.
Congress appears to be nearing an overall budget deal that will likely increase the EPA’s funding or at least maintain it at current levels.
Gulliford said there’s a federal regulatory rule in place that requires the safe handling of lead when working on construction projects. He said that while it is more expensive for contractors to follow those procedures, the rule does have an enforcement aspect that the EPA can exercise.
“It is more expensive because you have to put down tarps and limit the access area,” he said. “But at the same time it is a national rule.”
Some of the workers at the most at risk are actually those who go it alone, Gulliford said. He added that those people might not know proper procedures or the dangers associated with lead. More on the safe handling of lead can be found on the EPA’s website, www.epa.gov.
“I have great confidence that it’s going to be fixed here,” McMurray said. “This is a very serious matter.”