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Idaho’s lead contamination crisis

Recent news about the lead-contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan, made other communities around the country want to pay a bit more attention to local efforts concerning water quality testing and regulation. Although Idaho isn’t a state that’s known for having a polluted water supply, it is a state with a long history of mining. Because of this, many of the residents of Silver Valley in and around Kellogg, specifically, are familiar with the concept of lead contamination. However, the source of their contamination came not from the water but from the air.

In many parts of rural America, it’s difficult to ‘break into’ local government if you’re not originally from the town you’d like to represent. The same can be said for rural Idaho, which—in part because of the interconnectivity of the Internet and modern-day tourism—is not quite as unknown as it used to be. As a result, residents of small towns and more rural communities are understandably wary of outsiders: they don’t want their way of life—and with it, local real estate and property values—to go up.

Needless to say, but in case you’re a hermit who knows nothing about national politics, it’s also helpful to know that Idaho is a very politically-conservative state. As such, it doesn’t tend to trust government entities very much. This is why it makes sense for government officials to get to know their local communities—especially when it comes to public health. Being a local public health official in a place like rural Idaho —as opposed to a public health official dealing with a community from a distance—could really make a difference to your effectiveness in being able to reach the people you’re trying to help.

As far as clean water goes, Idaho is relatively ahead of the game. We have some of the most pristine waterways in the country. Luckily, we only have three schools in the state that have recently tested positive for excess levels of lead in the water supply—and only ‘twenty-two water systems in Idaho have had tests above 15 parts per billion at some point since 2013.’

A bitter mining legacy

However, although our lakes and rivers are relatively clear here, it’s still possible to contract lead poisoning from our immediate work or natural environment. Take what happened to Paul Flory in the early 1970s while growing up in North Idaho’s Silver Valley: after a fire destroyed the smokestack filter at the Bunker Hill Mining Company in Kellogg, which extracted zinc and lead from ore, the company kept the plant in operation without a filter for another 18 months. As a result, the almost 200 children who played outside, nearby, acquired lead poisoning.

A barn standing in the middle of a field
Photo: Loren Kerns/Creative Commons

You may wonder what the big deal is about a little extra lead in the system. What happened to the children of Kellogg is they started exhibiting loss of energy and appetite, constipation, irritability, and abdominal pain. The Statesman article on Paul Flory adds, “They could expect developmental problems, mental health issues, and kidney and heart problems the rest of their lives.” Barker also points out that, despite considerable clean-up efforts funded by the company originally at fault, families in Silver Valley are still advised to get their children tested for lead levels.

However, it’s impossible to force parents to get their children tested, and it’s also complicated due to historical affiliations with the mining industry, as well as general distrust of government and healthcare entities—especially in rural areas. Considering the damage that lead poisoning can inflict, however, it simply makes sense to cover all the proverbial bases.

Because there is no default lead testing in Idaho, it can’t hurt to get yourself and your family tested for lead in your blood levels—especially any children in your family. Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning: ‘Their growing bodies absorb more lead than adult bodies do, and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the metal’s damaging effects.’ The tremendous physical damage that excess lead levels can have on children’s lifelong health makes it of grave importance that parents get their children—as well as themselves—tested for higher-than-usual levels of lead in their blood.

Distrust hampers public health measures

However, for many people, the choice is apparently more complicated than that: pride, identity, and suspicion of government entities make it a matter of self-reliance, rather than common sense. In 2010, Nicholas Geranios interviewed some of the residents of Smelterville, a town adjacent to Kellogg, and found that ‘many parents in the Kellogg community are no longer having their children tested because of the stigma attached to lead exposure, including an increased potential for learning and behavior disorders.’ Moreover, Barbara Miller, a community resource professional, says “People in the area are in denial about the connection between mining and the myriad health problems.”

Because of the history of widespread mining in Idaho, coupled with the absence of testing requirements for lead contamination in Idaho buildings, pipes, and water supplies, it’s especially advisable to get blood levels tested for lead, if you happen to live in Idaho. Moreover, the need for public health officials is especially great in Idaho, since part of a public health officer’s job is to look into environmental safety issues and educate community members on the best choices to make for themselves and their families. If a public health professional is in-the-know, so to speak, about local history and politics, they’re going to be able to be more effective at their jobs.

Clearly, the major hurdle in Idaho—as well as around the country—is the conflict between the need for a strengthened infrastructure, nationwide, and forces calling for the abolishment of government, in general. This is the opposite of what needs to be done, especially when it comes to generally understaffed and underfunded community public health centers around the country—especially in the state of politically conservative states like Idaho. Besides voting in the interest of supporting public health interests, which can only benefit our children and families, it’s also important to educate ourselves about public health issues like lead contamination: because if we don’t stand up for our own best interests, who will?

Photo: chadh/Creative Commons