SMELTERVILLE, Idaho - They call themselves "the leaded."

They grew up in the shadow of a giant lead smelter here, and were contaminated with some of the biggest lead releases in the nation's history.

They complain they have suffered physical and emotional problems their entire lives, with little medical help from the government. They are speaking up now to encourage more people in this mining region to get their children tested for lead exposure.

"I tell everybody I'm leaded," said Jeannie Stancik, 48, of adjacent Kellogg. "That's how I deal with it."

She recalled going to school next door to the smelter as a child and always having her mouth taste like blood because of the lead particles in the air.

Her sister, Mary Brewer, 46, of Kellogg, showed a piece of thin yellow paper issued by the State of Idaho in 1975 with the results of her original blood lead test. It showed her level at 53 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, a reading which at the time was classified as "slightly elevated." These days, a reading of 10 is enough to raise official concern, and no amount of lead is considered safe

"She always had a mouthful of dirt," Stancik joked, regarding a major path for lead into the bodies of children.

Despite a lack of scientific proof, these residents believe their childhood exposure caused illnesses that plague their adult lives, including attention deficit disorder, depression, sciatic problems, arthritis and others. But many cannot afford medical insurance or expensive tests.

Rocky Hill, 55, grew up in the Silver Valley and now lives in Stevensville, Mont. He registered a blood lead level of 40 as a child, and has been sick much of his life.

"The dirt we played in was nothing but lead, there was no grass," Hill said.

A group of people who grew up in the Kellogg area met with a reporter for The Associated Press amid new reports 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.

"People don't really want to know the truth," said Cass Davis, 45, who lives in Moscow, Idaho. "I flunked the first grade and was sent to be tested for retardation."

The Bunker Hill Mining Co. lead smelter operated here for decades, releasing lead the entire time. The biggest releases occurred in 1974 and 1975, when the smelter was operated for six months after a fire damaged its lead containment system. About 35 tons of lead per month fell on the Kellogg area, and children got dizzy and developed stomach cramps. Kids living closest to the smelter had blood lead levels well over 100, which could have damaged their mental abilities.

The area was declared a Superfund site in the early 1980s, shortly after the smelter closed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has spent nearly 20 years removing lead from the environment here, and claims great success because the average blood lead level of children has dropped to about normal, which is 2 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

Critics scoff at those results, because only a handful of children are being tested.

Health experts counter that progress is obvious.

Jerry Cobb, of the local Panhandle Health District, said about 50 percent of the children in the Silver Valley had readings above 10 in 1989. Now almost none register that high.

Dan Opalski, head of Superfund work for the EPA regional office in Seattle, said the tests show the cleanup has made "significant progress."

The testing of children is voluntary. About 10 children were tested in the Kellogg area this year, out of an estimated 500 kids under age 9, Cobb said. More than 400 children in this community of 2,000 people were tested each year in the 1990s.

But even the EPA doesn't consider the current level of testing to be "statistically representative of blood-lead levels for children in the Silver Valley," said Cami Grandinetti of the EPA office in Seattle.

The EPA has replaced the soil in nearly all the town's residential and public lawns and playgrounds. The agency has also tested the dust in a sample of households and found it below the standard of concern, Cobb said.

All of which makes it safer for children, and less likely they would have elevated blood lead levels, he said, but testing is needed to make sure the cleanup is working and holding.

Cobb said an additional factor in the reduced testing numbers is that parents are no longer paid the $20 to $40 they formerly were for bringing in their kids.

Disinterest in testing may also be attributed to the stigma attached to high lead levels.

After only seven Kellogg children showed up for testing in 2007, the Silver Valley Community Resource Center, an activist group, asked a toxicologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to find out why.

Doctoral candidate Sue Moodie surveyed people in about 100 households and reported that many parents felt "blame, shame and guilt" for high levels of lead in their children's blood, her report earlier this year said. Names of those interviewed were not released.

Parents of children with high lead levels feared they would be perceived as "dirty people and didn't take care of their kids," one respondent told Moodie.

Shane Stancik, 31, was born in Kellogg and is raising his 4-year-old son here. He helped conduct interviews for the survey, and estimated 70 percent of the people were hostile to testing.

"I was tested every year," Stancik said, with his blood lead level reaching as high as 89. He takes care to keep his son away from dirt, and quickly washes the boy's hands and face to prevent lead exposure, Stancik said.

Barbara Miller, who heads the Silver Valley Community Resource Center, said people in the area are in denial about the connection between mining and the myriad health problems suffered by six generations of residents.

"Words fail me in describing the guilt, shame, embarrassment of it all," Miller said. "To this day, no one talks about lead exposure."

 

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