Lead poisoning still an issue in Rochester
by: Steve Orr and Meaghan M. McDermott
The Michigan city of Flint became ground zero of the nation’s latest public-health outrage when it was learned in recent months that its tap water contained unsafe levels of toxic lead.
Though the aqueous cause of its lead problem is unusual, Flint is otherwise far from unique. Many American cities, including Rochester, continue to struggle with lead poisoning, particularly of children.
In fact, despite years of successful anti-lead work locally, the proportion of children in Rochester found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood still was roughly double that of their counterparts in Flint in 2014, the most recent year for which comparable data are available.
“We have had a huge amount of progress here. We’ve had a nearly 90 percent reduction in the number of kids with elevated blood lead levels in the past 15 years,” said Katrina Smith Korfmacher, an associate professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center who has long been involved in local anti-lead efforts. “But I would say it’s still a serious, or an ongoing, problem. The point is, it won’t ever go away entirely, because there is lead in the environment.”
The lion’s share of lead poisoning in the Rochester area is ascribed to inhalation and ingestion of the lead-paint dust and chips that can be found in older homes. The contribution made by lead that can be found in the tap water of some city homes has never been documented, though experts presume it is relatively minor.
Lead was used in pipes, solder, paint, gasoline and many other products in decades gone by. Today, it is known to be highly toxic, especially to children. Lead, which accumulates in the body and remains there, has been proven to cause learning disabilities, behavior problems, slowed growth, hearing difficulties and many other problems. Medical experts say no amount of lead is considered safe.
Flint, which is half the size of Rochester, has been rocked in recent months by the revelation that a switch to a new source of drinking water in 2014 triggered the release of lead from water pipes. That lead found its way into the tap water of some homes in Flint, contributing to a sudden increase in the number of children there with unacceptably high levels of lead in their bodies.
Local and state government officials have been widely excoriated for failing to prevent the problem and for trying to minimize it in the face of widespread complaints. Federal officials are investigating, and many citizens are supportive of lawsuits that have been filed against the city and state of Michigan.