Removing sources of lead poisoning is proving difficult

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Lead poisoning not only is still around, but removing lead from the environment is ``far more complex than we thought 15 years ago,'' says Francis W. Sargent, former governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Sargent recently proposed revamping legislation he signed in 1971, saying the regulations were too broad and had not accomplished enough. ``We're no longer talking about chips of lead paint. ... [Lead] is in the very environment in which we live,'' he said.

Medical experts also are calling for reform. Dr. Jane Lin-Fu, pediatric consultant for the federal Division of Child and Maternal Health, says that the more research into lead poisoning is done, the more cases are discovered. But she notes that these cases are often less severe than earlier.

According to her figures, up to 4 percent of all pre-school children and as many as 18.6 percent of poor black children recently screened nationwide have dangerous lead levels in their blood. While children up to the age of 6 are the most severely affected, a high lead-blood level is reported to be dangerous for adults as well. Experts say it damages development of the central nervous system.

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Lead poisoning ``isn't merely a slums problem. It's in every city and town,'' said Sargent. While dilapidated housing with lead paint is an obvious hazard, lead-laden dust, soil, gas, and water, which are present in all environments, contribute to poisoning, too.

Dr. Lin-Fu says that 30 million to 40 million houses across the nation have lead paint, and therefore lead dust, in them - ``and that won't go away. That source of lead will remain for many, many years, and children will continue to be exposed.''

Water from lead pipes may also contain high amounts of lead. A study by Ronnie Levin, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) economist, shows that 42 million Americans are exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water.

The Conservation Law Foundation of New England (CLF) has filed complaints against EPA, which proposed reducing lead in water to a ``safe'' level by 1991. CLF says a ``safe'' level has yet to be identified and charges that EPA has not enforced existing standards.

According to the EPA's Ms. Levin, the agency ``thinks they can't [regulate] it any faster.'' She believes the EPA could be moving faster, but says ``a series of bureaucratic steps'' slows reform.

Lack of funding for lead programs as well as the insidious nature of lead poisoning are the biggest hurdles for state governments to overcome.

In 1982, under the block-grant system, ``the federal government turned over full responsibility to the states and went on to other things,'' says Alvin Tucker, director of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program for Pennsylvania's Department of Health. Now, federal funds and recommendations on lead poisoning go to states earmarked for maternal and child health programs, but the states choose their own priorities.

Last year, however, Congress appropriated $15 million to help fund pilot clean-up projects in several cities. But current deleading techniques - removing old paint and other sources of lead from the environment - are not only expensive, but inadequate at best, says Dr. Julian Chisholm, of the Johns Hopkins Medical School.

Under federal regulations for the deleading of gas and paint, the numbers of ``severe'' cases have dropped off. This leads many states to believe that the lead problem is solved, says Dr. Lin-Fu. Experts agree that lead poisoning is a national problem, but just over half of the states report any sort of lead prevention activity, and even fewer have statewide regulations.

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