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City workers strip lead from St. Louis homes, one window at a time

Maurice Ohuonu (left), Henry Gates and Marcel Washington, make up one of three lead abatement teams that remove lead paint from St. Louis homes on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. The men scraped and painted the windows of Anquanetta Williams' home in the 4300 block of Cote Brilliante Avenue, where Williams lives with two grandchildren, one with high lead levels. Gates, who leads the crew, had lead poisoning when he was 5 years old. "I know what it does to a child," he said. "People are afraid to let inspectors in their homes because they think they're going to get violations, but we actually want to help." Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

It costs a lot to remediate the leaded paint that is poisoning thousands of children in older St. Louis housing, but nowhere near as much as it could eventually cost society if the problem goes unaddressed.

As the Post-Dispatch’s Blythe Bernhard reports, at least 3,300 kids in St. Louis have toxic levels of lead in their blood. Contamination — the result of exposure in old houses with lead-based paint — causes permanent damage.

Once lead poisons a child’s blood, the effects are “essentially irreversible and devastating,” said Dr. Andrew White, professor of pediatrics at Washington University.

Lead paint was banned in 1978, but 90 percent of St. Louis’ housing stock was built before that. Repainting does not eliminate the threat from lead, and poorer neighborhoods are the ones most likely to pose ongoing contamination threats. Children with high exposure levels today are likely the offspring of parents who also were exposed.

A growing body of scientific research links lead exposure in young children with a raft of complications, including lower IQ, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, impulse-control issues and learning disabilities. Previous studies linked exposure to leaded gasoline and a lower ability to resist risky behaviors, especially those related to unsafe sex and crime.

Robert J. Sampson, a Harvard University researcher who has studied crime in Chicago for more than two decades, said last year that lead-paint poisoning is a persistent problem in high-crime neighborhoods. “When I see the astounding levels of lead poisoning in these communities, it makes complete sense that it is part of the cycle of deprivation,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

Erik Nelson, assistant professor of epidemiology at St. Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice, says childhood lead exposure may be to blame for a high rate of sexually transmitted infections in some St. Louis neighborhoods.

Scientists say lead gives the brain a one-two punch, impairing specific areas responsible for executive functions as well as the communication channels between those parts of the brain. Even minuscule levels of lead in blood, well into the range considered safe, are found to cause attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

In 2003, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay vowed to eliminate lead poisoning by 2010. In the 1990s, one in four St. Louis children had lead poisoning. By 2011, the rate was one in 50.

After that, the effort slowed. There was less federal money available, and some local remediation programs ended. Many mistakenly thought the problem had been eliminated. Children, especially in high poverty areas, need to be tested and monitored. Efforts must be redoubled to remove lead paint from older homes.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the average removal project costs about $10,000. Considering the much higher social costs from ignoring the problem, that’s a small price to pay.

Deb Peterson • 314-340-8276

@debschmooze on Twitter