While it’s a well-known scientific fact, it bears repeating. There is no safe level of lead. Unfortunately, there are communities all across the country where public health specialists are dealing with the issue of lead, in the paint, in antiquated water delivery systems, in soil and worse, in young children who have been exposed to leaded paint, tainted water and soil. Pueblo is one such community. But it’s also a community that is tackling this issue head-on.
At the forefront of this war on lead and the impact it has on public health in southern Colorado’s largest city are the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment and Corazón Ocañas, Environmental Health Specialist. “There are 52 homes in Eillers, Bessemer and the Grove,” the three impacted communities, that the department wants to test, said Ocañas. Children living in these homes are “the main factor,” for prioritizing and accelerating testing.
Blood testing these children will determine lead levels in their system. Even the slightest trace of lead is a red flag. Lead presents both short and long-term health issues, both physical and intellectual. It can mean decreased bone and muscle growth, poor muscle coordination, damage to the nervous system, including kidneys and/or hearing, speech and language problems and developmental delay
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded Pueblo a grant to test children who meet its guidelines. In order to qualify for testing, “you need a child in the home who is under six,” Ocañas said. Women of child bearing age living in these locations should also be tested.
Much of the lead in Pueblo is a remnant of the long ago Madonna Mine, located in the mountains west of Pueblo in Chaffee County, said Ocañas. To dispose of the tailings---which also included silver and zinc---mine operators built the Colorado Smelter on the south end of town where for 25 years they regularly dumped them. It’s located roughly between Santa Fe Drive and Interstate 25. The last delivery of this toxic mineral concoction---estimated at 30 percent of each load---was dumped in 1908. The time that has passed has not lessened its danger to public health.
But the mine is not the only source of lead that plagues certain parts of Pueblo. In its heyday, the steel mill which once employed thousands of workers, belched out tons of pollution on a daily basis, much of which contained a cocktail of chemical hazards, including lead.
Today, there is a gigantic slag pile---the toxic residue left by the smelter--- that covers “25 acres and is up to 30 feet high,” said the county’s news release. It is not only an ugly remnant of the Colorado Smelter but a red-flag health symbol. The fence walling it off from the public is porous, as attested by the frequent gaps cut into it at various spots. All in all, it presents a hazard that the county wants to mitigate as quickly as possible.
While lead-based paint was banned by the EPA in 1978, the government did not mandate that buildings in which it was used do anything to mitigate it. As a result, untold numbers of structures---in every city and state---present potential danger. But it doesn’t stop there. There remains lead in older plumbing, including pipes and faucets, older eating utensils, jewelry, toys, even candy and foods, especially those imported from Mexico or China. And, add one more thing, said Ocañas, “We actually had a kid who was going fishing and he was biting down on the lead sinkers. It’s just crazy what lead is still used in.”
“We actually try to get out into the community as much as we can,” said Ocañas. It’s the best way to educate the public to this health threat. “We host lead clinics,” all across Pueblo County. “Our main goal will be providing outreach and education,” she said. The department is always looking for ways to carry on the lead program.
For more information on lead and testing, contact the Pueblo Department of Public Health & Environment at 719.583.4300 or pueblohealth.org.