(ST. LOUIS) - Jack Warden, one of the most vocal critics of the nation's largest lead smelter, expected the results of a government lead exposure study to be troubling. But he said the findings still left him devastated.
``It's just unacceptable,'' said Warden, who lives a quarter-mile from the Doe Run Co. smelter. ``Everyone else wants to break out their study books. To hell with the study books. Study time is over. It's time to act.''
In releasing a report on what they called ``an urgent public health hazard,'' state health officials said Tuesday that more than a quarter of the children living close to the smelter have elevated lead in their blood.
The findings are the most comprehensive yet to gauge the extent of lead exposure in the home of the 110-year-old Doe Run Co. smelter in Herculaneum, about 30 miles south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River.
State officials conducted the comprehensive study based on blood samples given voluntarily by 935 people last fall.
About 28 percent of children under 7, considered the most vulnerable to lead poisoning, had lead levels above the federal limit deemed safe. On the side of U.S. Highway 61 that includes the Doe Run smelter, about 45 percent of children had high lead levels. That compares to a national rate near 3 percent.
``This is extremely high,'' said Scott Clardy, a public health expert at the health department. ``This is far and away the highest rate I've seen anywhere, and it's the reason we declared the site an urgent public health hazard.''
Doe Run spokeswoman Barb Shepard said the company agrees with the recommendations, and she identified lead paint as one of the sources that needs to be reduced. But she said the company doesn't agree with the numbers, and would have more to say after further review.
Lead exposure is known to hamper brain development in children and cause other health problems. The situation in Herculaneum already is considered severe enough that families are asked to wash hands frequently, leave shoes outside and wash children's toys if used outdoors.
Under orders and oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency, Doe Run is spending millions of dollars to replace yards and reduce air pollution. The company has been ordered to pare its emissions to meet federal standards by July. The latest findings will help the EPA decide whether the current cleanup efforts will be enough to protect public health.
Gov. Bob Holden and House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, whose district includes Herculaneum, have urged the EPA to put the site on its national priority list for Superfund money.
``Given these findings, it is imperative that this problem be addressed immediately,'' Gephardt said in a statement.