MAC: Mines and Communities

From inner-city US to Andean Peru: the continuing curse of lead

Published by MAC on 2007-11-02

From inner-city US to Andean Peru: the continuing curse of lead

2nd November 2007

A US study, published last month, claims that exposure to lead in the environment is directly associated with juvenile criminality and that reducing such exposure has already measurably contributed to abating "anti social" behaviour. According to a US professor of Environmental Health, other factors are involved; nonetheless the case against lead use is ov overwhelming.

Last week, a scientific team with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urged that limits to airborne lead exposure be set at least seven times higher than currently permitted.

As Environmental News Service (ENS) points out, this could well hamper operations at Doe Run's lead smelter in Missouri - one of two point sources of excessive lead emissions in the US. The suit against lead which led to the EPA recommendation was filed in 2005 by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

The Saint Louis University School of Public Health, also from Missouri, has been carrying out a study of pollution (including from heavy metals) in the Mantaro river valley of Andean Peru. It has confirmed previous studies which showed unnacceptably high levels of lead emissions deriving from Doe Run's smelter in La Oroya.

EPA Staff Urges More Protective Airborne Lead Standard


2nd November 2007

Saying there is no safe level of lead in the air, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staff scientists on Thursday recommended strengthening the air lead standard to protect the health of American children. The staff paper says the standard [limits]for airborne lead should be set at least seven times lower than the concentration allowed today.

The staff report says, "A large body of new scientific studies shows that adverse effects in young children occur at much lower blood lead levels than was understood when the current standard was set in 1978."

The staff found that there is no safe level of lead exposure below which adverse health effects may not occur. The evidence also shows associations between lead exposure and health problems in adults.

The recommendation does not change current air quality standards but it is a pivotal step in adopting a new air pollution limit for lead, which is expected to happen next year.

The EPA's new rulemaking concerning lead is required by the 2005 order of a federal judge in St. Louis in a case filed by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

The federal agency is required to issue a proposal regarding the lead standards by May 1, 2008, and to issue a final rule by September 1, 2008.

By the end of November, the EPA will issue a notice of proposed rulemaking that will outline policy options the agency is considering, and invite public comment.

The agency says it is planning to issue the proposal in March 2008, to allow the public time to comment again before the May 1 deadline. The EPA staff based their final paper on a review of current science about lead and health, and on analyses of risks at current levels of lead in the air.

IQ loss in children is the key health effect addressed in the staff paper, but the staff scientists found evidence of a variety of adverse health effects in children associated with lead, particularly on the developing nervous system.

"Estimated lead exposure and the resulting risk of IQ loss in children associated with levels allowed by the current standard are large enough to be considered important from a public health perspective," the EPA staff paper says.

"This is true not only because of the serious nature of IQ loss during childhood years, but also because of the potential long-term adverse consequences of childhood IQ effects over a lifetime," the staff says. The Missouri Coalition for the Environment says that even at low levels, lead in children’s blood causes behavioral problems, nervous system damage and anemia as well as reduced IQs.

The EPA staff report recommends that the EPA lower the lead standards from the current level of 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3), setting a revised standard within a range that extends as high as 0.2 ug/m3 and as low as 0.05 ug/m3.

The paper also recommends that the EPA not consider revoking the lead standard, or removing lead from the list of criteria pollutants.

If the agency adopts tougher standards, it could affect operations at the Doe Run Company's lead smelter in Herculaneum, Missouri, which has sometimes failed to meet the current air standard for lead.

Also this week, a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds children with blood lead levels lower than the U.S. standard may suffer lower IQs and other problems.

It is the first time the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention has focused on the risks to children with levels of lead in their blood lower than the U.S. standard. The government advisory panel is urging doctors to be more alert to signs of lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning can cause irreversible learning disabilities and behavioral problems and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and death. Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.

"Inner-city environment provides the weapon; lead pulls the trigger"

Living on Earth (media programme)

2nd November 2007

A recent study finds removing lead from gasoline and paint 20 years ago could be linked to a drop in national crime rates.

But, the story isn't that simple. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Kim Dietrich, professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, to find out what other factors make certain individuals more likely to commit crimes, and how lead’s involved.

GELLERMAN: Lead is an insidious substance. The human body has no use for the metal. But once inside, it can damage the brain, leading to learning disabilities, impulsive behavior and violence. Now, it seems exposure to lead as a youth can also be linked to crime later in life. A recent study correlated the phase-out of lead in paint and gasoline in the 1970s with crime rates two decades later and found in the words of the researcher Rick Nevins, 'a stunning fit.'

As the amount of lead in the environment declined, so did the crime rates in nine countries. In fact, Nevins says, the phase out of lead did more to stop violent crime among people who came of age in its demise than any social policy. Kim Dietrich at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine has also be studying the pernicious effects of lead.

For the past 30 years he's been following inner-city kids from the time before they were even born until now. Professor Dietrich says the latest findings linking crime and lead are no surprise, but he's got even better evidence.

DIETRICH: Well, even though these ecological studies were generally well done, they're limited, because they cannot correlate individual lead dose with individual behavior. So, you're not going to see a one-to-one relationship between lead exposure and engaging in anti-social behavior but the trends are clearly there and the relationships in our particular study in Cincinnati were quite robust.

GELLERMAN: And what did you find?

DIETRICH: What we found was a robust relationship between both exposure to lead in the womb, and during early childhood. And the rate of criminal arrests in these individuals when they were in their early twenties. And this association was strongest for crimes involving violence.

GELLERMAN: So can these numbers help explain the disproportionate numbers of minorities who are incarcerated?

DIETRICH: It certainly has played a role. Children who are living in our inner cities, who are largely minority, live in—typically live in homes built before 1950—that are in various states of disrepair.

And they are exposed to high levels of lead from one principal source—and that's lead paint residues, which are in their environments in the form of dust in the interior of the homes and as a result of the peeling off, sloughing off the layers of exterior lead paint, there are high concentrations of lead in the soil around their home.

So, while in these studies that have associated the decline in crime with the decline in atmospheric lead levels, they focus on the general population. But children growing up in our inner cities are still exposed to high levels of lead and have not benefited as much from the public health efforts to reduce lead in gasoline and in foods and other ambient sources.

GELLERMAN: What about poor nutrition among minorities—does that play a role? Because I know that for example, calcium resembles the lead in terms of the body's ability to absorb it—

DIETRICH: That's right and children who have diets that are lower in calcium will absorb more lead than children who have calcium-sufficient diets. However, children—whether their diets are sufficient or not, still absorb more lead than adults do because of their physiology. Given the same amount of ingested lead, children will absorb four times or more lead than an adult.

But you're right.

Calcium and lead follow the same physiological pathways or stream in our bodies and this results in a cascade of effects in the developing nervous system, resulting in outcomes in the brains ranging from cell death to abnormal branching and establishment of connections of the neurons. So, lead results in this miswired brain that leads to lower intellectual function, learning problems, and academic failure. So children who are frustrated in their learning environments are more likely to turn to anti-social behavior, delinquency, and as adults, crime as an outlet.

GELLERMAN: So if you look at inner cities, if you look at the poor, if you look at their exposure to weapons, you look at their exposure to violence, you look at their exposure to lead, and their poor nutrition. Is this sort of the perfect combination of factors for crime?

DIETRICH: Yes, it's in a sense, the perfect storm. Uh, the environment provides a lot of incentives for crime. The child is in a community where he or she sees violence—the availability of guns, the availability of illicit drugs. So I would say that the inner-city environment provides the weapon, lead pulls the trigger.

GELLERMAN: Would it be an overstatement to say that if we were to reduce lead dramatically from our inner cities, we would see a dramatic drop in violent crime?

DIETRICH: Well, lead does not exist in a vacuum. Lead is contributing to criminal behavior in the context of other social and economic factors that are going on at the same time. But what's unique about lead is that we don't have to do complex and politically difficult social engineering, we know how to remove lead from the environment and how to prevent children from being exposed to lead. Engineering lead out of the environment will prove to be a lot easier, and probably cheaper, than removing some of the other factors that contribute to criminal behavior.

GELLERMAN: So if I went to prison, took blood samples of the inmates, would I find that inmates had higher levels of lead in their bodies?

DIETRICH: Not necessarily because if you take one blood lead level from one person at a particular point in time, you can't tell really if that represents past exposure or only exposure that occurred very recently. Because the half-life of lead in blood is only about a month. So any one blood lead level assessment is not very good generally speaking in terms of determining how much lead they've been exposed to in the past.

GELLERMAN: So you feel there's really a very close causal link between crime and lead?

DIETRICH: I am convinced that we're seeing that in our own data and sometimes the data speak clearly and I think the data are speaking clearly to us that there is a causal link between early exposure to lead, juvenile delinquency, and crime.

GELLERMAN: Well Professor, thank you very much. I appreciate it. DIETRICH: You're very welcome.

GELLERMAN: Kim Dietrich is a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

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ENVIRONMENT-PERU: Joining Forces to Save the Mantaro River

By Milagros Salazar


9th October 2007

Social organisations in Peru have joined forces to save the Mantaro river, which is being killed by pesticides, untreated sewage, and the waste products dumped by the mining industry.

The river, which runs through the Andes mountain range in central Peru at between 3,400 and 4,300 metres above sea level, is one of the main sources of irrigation water and electric power in the region.

But its waters contain heavy metals like copper, iron, lead and zinc, according to studies by governmental and non-governmental bodies, which warn that the river is polluted by the mining industry and by the runoff of fertilisers and pesticides from the intense agricultural activity in the area.

Civil society groups from the six provinces through which the dying river runs have been pressing for change since July 2006, when activists from Chupaca, Concepción, Huancayo, Jauja, Junín and Yauli-La Oroya launched the "Revive El Mantaro" campaign.

The one-and-a-half-year campaign has involved monitoring of pollution in the water, soil and air in the Mantaro river valley, with the aid of the Saint Louis University School of Public Health from the U.S. state of Missouri.

Other focuses have been health care and environmental awareness-raising efforts among local populations affected by the pollution, as well as the establishment of dialogue among the various parties to agree on a common agenda.

The results of the monitoring studies will be released in a few weeks.

Government institutions have backed the studies and have signed agreements to take remedial measures.

There are 17 active mining operations in the Mantaro river valley, as well as dozens of mines that have been abandoned, all of which cause serious damage to the environment and human heath, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

Another source of pollution is a giant smelting complex belonging to Doe Run, a U.S. company, in the town of La Oroya.

Medical tests carried out in the smog-blanketed town have found high blood levels of lead among local children. On Aug. 31, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asked the Peruvian state to take urgent precautionary measures to protect the health and lives of the people of La Oroya.

According to a study carried out from January to March by the General Directorate of Environmental Health, the levels of E. coli bacteria -- the indicator used to assess faecal contamination of water supplies -- and lead in the Mantaro river are higher than the internationally acceptable levels.

The report found lead levels in the river of 0.37 micrograms per litre of water, compared to the nationally acceptable limit of 0.1, and a concentration of E. coli eight times higher than the limit, as a result of the sewage and garbage dumped into the river.

A 1997 study carried out by international consultants and commissioned by the Ministry of Energy and Mines also found that the concentration of heavy metals in the river was higher than the limits set in Peru and the World Bank’s environmental guidelines.

In 1999, a report by the Comptroller-General’s Office warned that acid pollution and the dumping of mine waste products posed a severe threat to a chain of lakes in the area and to the biodiversity in the Mantaro river, which is a source of irrigation for an important agricultural district.

The study reported severe changes in ecosystems, the loss of flora and fauna, the pollution of rivers and the potential risk of harm to underground water systems, as well as acid pollution that is dispersed by the wind, degrading soils and grassland.

And virtually nothing has changed since then.

A 2006 report by the non-governmental Union for the Sustainable Development of the Province of Yauli-La Oroya (UNES) said the liquid effluents generated by the mining industry continue to affect water quality in the Yauli river (which flows into the Mantaro river), making the water unsuitable for livestock and irrigation.

One of the most critical points is the area around the Kingsmill tunnel, built in the 1930s to drain mine workings. The tunnel discharges water into the Yauli river, thus carrying metals like copper, iron and zinc into the Mantaro river, reported UNES.

At the government’s behest, the Peru Copper Inc. company is revising a feasibility study for the construction of a water treatment plant to treat acid drainage water from the tunnel.

"The Mantaro river is actually dead from its very source," the secretary of the Huancayo environmental dialogue panel, Washington Mori, told IPS. Waste generated by the mining industry is dumped into Lake Junín in the high Andes of south-central Peru, where the river is born, marking the start of the chain of contamination.

Air pollution in the area is also alarming. The governmental National Environment Council (CONAMA) reports that the Doe Run smelter’s main smokestack spews out 1.5 tons of lead per day on average.

The plant also emits 810 tons of sulphur dioxide a day, more than four times the maximum allowed by Peruvian law, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

CONAMA reports that the smelter is responsible for 99 percent of the toxic gases breathed by the people of La Oroya, which cause serious respiratory ailments and learning problems among local children.

Studies conducted in 1999, 2003 and 2005 by CooperAcción, a local non-governmental social development organisation, and a team from the St. Louis University School of Public Health found that virtually all children in the town under the age of six had blood lead levels exceeding 10 micrograms per decilitre of blood (mcg/dl), the acceptable limit set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and that a majority had blood levels of over 40 mcg/dl.

"Due to the lack of constant monitoring, we decided to press for these technical studies to gauge the true dimension of the problem and begin to face up to the challenge," engineer Paula Meza, director of "Revive El Mantaro", commented to IPS.

In addition, 1,600 local children with high blood lead levels receive nutritional supplements and vitamin C, to alleviate the effects of lead and other toxic elements.

The dialogue panels including community leaders and local authorities set up in the six provinces that the Mantaro river runs through, to discuss possible solutions that will be taken into account by the central government, are another key aspect of the campaign.

A panel was established in late September in Yauli-La Oroya -- a real achievement, given the low level of local support for environmental initiatives due to the strong backing for Doe Run, the engine of the local economy.

The "Revive El Mantaro" campaign has a budget of 1.32 million dollars from the Fondo Ítalo Peruano (Italian-Peruvian Fund), as well as 500,000 dollars from the Catholic Church.

"There are many things left to do, but we have realised that if we organise, we can work with civil society and strengthen local capacities to act. The biggest problem is still a lack of political support," said Meza.

But that does not mean that these non-governmental initiatives should "replace the obligations of the state; it must be clear that they are complementary efforts," said Iván Lanegra, the official in charge of natural resources and environmental management in the region of Junín.

Lanegra, one of the officials most heavily involved in the campaign against pollution in the Mantaro river valley, believes that one of the major obstacles is a decentralised environmental authority.

He recommends greater centralisation and coordination between regional and national actors, and calls for a "truly independent environmental authority, in which regional governments are the operational arms of oversight activities." (END/2007)


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