Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tipping Point: St. Louis Demolitions Bring Renewed Risk for Lead Poisoning More Than 2,600 St. Louis Children Have Measurable Levels of Lead in Their Blood, Which Can Lead to Brain Damage

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tipping Point: St. Louis Demolitions Bring Renewed Risk for Lead Poisoning More Than 2,600 St. Louis Children Have Measurable Levels of Lead in Their Blood, Which Can Lead to Brain Damage

Article excerpt

When vacant structures fall, heavy metals in dust travel for blocks Containment practices can double cost of taking down buildings Damage to developing brains from lead poisoning is permanent---

Toxic lead coursed through Christopher Holland Jr.'s body at two critical points in his life: as a toddler poisoned by lead paint and as a 20-year-old struck down by bullets.

"I saw how it affected his life -- with relationships, with his anger issues, always complaining that his head hurt," Christopher Holland Sr. said of the lead poisoning discovered when his son, known as "Lil Chris," was 4 years old and living in north St. Louis.

Lead poisoning cases have dropped dramatically since the 1990s, when Lil Chris was a child, but the problem hasn't gone away. The city's old housing stock still poses a danger to children in many neighborhoods.

Last year in St. Louis, more than 2,600 children had measurable levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to stunted growth, learning disabilities, risky behavior and other health problems. There is no safe amount of lead in a body, and damage to developing brains is permanent.

The main source of lead poisoning here is lead paint, banned in 1978 but too late for the nearly 90 percent of housing stock in St. Louis that was built earlier. City officials worry that demolition of old houses could reverse the years of progress in reducing lead poisoning.

The renewed push to demolish vacant buildings, generally thought to be a positive step for decaying urban areas, could have unintended and long-term public health consequences.

When the structures fall, heavy metals carried by dust can travel several blocks, drifting into open windows and settling into neighbors' yards. Demolitions elsewhere have been blamed for a rise in lead-poisoned children, who in turn are at higher risk of criminal behavior as adults.


Christopher Holland Sr. graduated from high school in 1988. Chris Jr. came along the next year, his brother Demontae in 1991. The family lived in a $210-a-month apartment on Ashland Avenue with "those windows with the wooden frames with the paint chipping," Holland said.

Even when houses are repainted, disturbing walls or opening windows can dislodge paint chips and dust to be ingested or inhaled by children.

After both boys tested high for lead during a regular checkup as preschoolers, "It was really tragic for me, being a young parent at that time with two kids. My boys were my life. For them to be sick like that, it was really on me," Holland said.

Nearly 30 years later, old houses in St. Louis continue to poison children despite an aggressive anti-lead campaign by former Mayor Francis Slay, who vowed to eradicate lead poisoning in the city by 2010. The results of the campaign were impressive -- the number of elevated blood lead levels dropped from nearly 1 in 3 children in 2000 to about 1 in 50 for the last few years.

But just as the city reduced its rates of lead poisoning, federal health authorities moved the goal line. In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered the definition for potential lead poisoning from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5, based on evidence that children can suffer harm from lower concentrations of lead.

In 2017, there were 678 children ages 6 and younger in St. Louis with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms, and an additional 150 with a lead level above 10. State health records show 1,660 children tested at a level between 3 and 5, enough to cause developmental delays.

"We did a great job for 20 or 30 years, then we've kind of let our guard down," said Dr. Christina Gurnett, a Washington University pediatric neurologist. "In a way it's off our radar screens because the levels are so low that we can't on an individual basis detect who's being harmed by this low level of exposure."

Lower concentrations of lead are more challenging to identify and treat because a child may not show immediate, obvious symptoms. …

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