Lead Poisoning Threatens the Children of An Idaho Town

The apparent problem seemed no more unusual for Kellogg, Idaho, than for any other small town: two toddlers had come down with flu symptoms. But further diagnosis and extensive testing came up with a far more chilling conclusion: the two children, and most of their playmates in the town, were suffering from lead poisoning. Many of the cases were severe. The discovery has set off widespread fear and quarrelling in a town that depends on a lead smelter for its livelihood.

It was almost a year ago that the two young “flu” patients were examined by a local physician. Looking past the initial diagnosis, he recognized some of the telltale signs of lead absorption, among them, loss of energy, constipation, irritability, abdominal pain and loss of appetite. But when public health officials searched the two youngsters’ home, they could find no peeling paint or other obvious sources of lead. As the children’s condition worsened, another doctor was consulted, and he in turn called upon Dr. John Mather, administrator of health services of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Clearly, something in Kellogg was poisoning the children, but what?

Kellogg’s main industry is the Bunker Hill Co., a lead, zinc and silver smelter. While it has a $20 million annual payroll and employs 2,300 people, the plant also spews out clouds of pollution. But since no lead poisoning problems had been reported during Mather’s 15 years as a state health official, he says, he was surprised at the doctor’s suspicions. “That seemed pretty strange,” Mather recalls. “In looking at the situation, we decided we really didn’t know anything about it.” Mather responded by ordering a series of tests. His own department began collecting 8,000 environmental samples, which are still being processed, to determine how much lead is present in the air, water and soil around Kellogg. And he asked for help from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, which sent four pediatricians for the specialized task of testing the blood of representative Kellogg-area children aged 1 to 9.

The results of the tests, released early this month, were stunning. They showed that 8 percent of the more than 300 children tested had abnormal lead content in their bodies. The maximum “normal” count is 40 micrograms per 100 milliliters of blood. At least a few of the youngsters had reached the level of “unequivocal lead poisoning” (80 micrograms), which can ultimately lead to irreversible damage of the central nervous system. It was suspected that airborne lead had contaminated the land around the smelter, and that children had unwittingly eaten the lead-tainted dirt.

Bunker Hill Co. has taken a defensive stance, refusing to release the results of tests it has run on its own lead emissions or those it made among local grammar school pupils two years ago. The company is also threatening that if Idaho’s emissions control regulations are not relaxed, it may have to close the Kellogg plant, a move that would cripple the town’s economy.

Dr. Robert Cordwell, a Kellogg physician and president of the Shoshone County Medical Association, says the problem is being exaggerated. He criticizes the state’s release of its blood test findings as premature. “Nothing should have been released until after all the information was in,” he says. “Treatment is very simple. If you release information piecemeal, people get scared.”

Cordwell adds, however, that short-term treatment is not the complete answer. “It’s up to the mothers,” he says. “They’ve got to teach children not to eat dirt and to wash their hands.”

Bill Yoss and his wife Marlene find it less easy to come up with such simple solutions. All three of their children showed dangerously high lead poisoning in the state tests and their 15-month-old daughter Arlene, who has a habit of nibbling dirt when she plays outdoors, had the highest reading of any child tested, 164 micrograms.

Arlene (“Baby Girl” to her parents) is hospitalized and she, her sister Edna, 4, and her brother Raymond, 3, are all receiving a daily series of painful intramuscular injections of Versenate, a substance that helps to flush the lead out of their bodies through the kidneys. How long they can stay free of lead contamination in Kellogg is another question.

Bill Yoss, 43, a welder for Bunker Hill, suspects he may have to quit his job. His $160 a week take-home pay is just enough to support his family in a squalid little house on Kellogg’s Deadwood Gulch, a bleak area in a bleak town. Nonetheless, Yoss is thinking of moving his family out of Kellogg. “I don’t know where we’ll end up,” he says. “We may pull out of the state.”

His wife, Marlene, a harried woman who looks older than her 37 years, is frightened that her children might die if they stay. “We’ve got a garden,” she says, “such as it is. But all that grows there is potatoes, and we don’t dare eat them. I can’t even keep any dogs or cats. After a while they throw a regular fit and keel over and die.”

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