Saline County residents peppered state and local health officials with questions about lead exposure at a public meeting Tuesday evening in Salina. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment organized the meeting after tests by local doctors this year found elevated lead levels in the blood of 32 Saline County children — most of them from Salina.
One audience member asked during the meeting whether officials were investigating the Exide Technologies plant on Salina’s southern edge, where batteries are manufactured.
Rick Brunetti, who heads KDHE’s air quality bureau, said in an interview after the meeting that Exide installed new equipment after the Environmental Protection Agency imposed stricter limits on lead emissions.
“In 2011, we had 1.45 tons — from Exide — of emissions. That was before the renovations,” he said.
Brunetti said since the renovations, the plant’s emission levels have dropped from 0.67 tons in 2012 to 0.53 in 2013, 0.36 in 2014 and 0.35 in 2015. That’s a 75 percent reduction in lead emissions over the last five years. Even so, the battery plant sent a total of 6,720 pounds of lead into the air around the facility during that period.
Brunetti said that because of its heavy weight, lead settles out of the air quickly so it doesn’t travel far from the plant. Air monitors around the Exide plant have shown no violations of the federal air quality standard for lead in the last two and a half years, he said.
The KDHE presentation included a chart showing the number of Saline County children found to have elevated lead levels in each of the last three years: 21 in 2013, 38 in 2014 and 25 in 2015. One audience member asked why health officials waited until this year to have a meeting addressing the issue.
Farah Ahmed, a KDHE environmental health officer, said the agency decided to act now because officials recognized that “we just needed to do a better job of helping families figure out what the source is.”
So far, officials have not been able to identify any pattern suggesting a common source for the lead exposure. Next month, investigators plan to do three-hour interviews with each of the affected families. They’ll also test their homes and take soil and water samples for lead.
Ahmed noted that some states require all children to be tested for lead exposure by a certain age, but Kansas is not one of them.
Meanwhile, the Saline County Health Department is offering free blood lead testing Wednesday and Thursday.
That prompted a question from Tara Johnson, who wondered why the department no longer offered such tests, except in rare circumstances like this one.
“Do you see that changing in the future?” she asked.
Jason Tiller, director of the Saline County Health Department, said the department lacked funding and resources to do that testing.
“Up to this point, at least in the last year or so, we hadn’t been doing lead testing, partially because of the lack of funding for that,” he said. “At this point, we are doing it for the next two days."
After that, he said, they’ll assess whether to continue to offer the tests.
As health officials in Kansas grapple with lead exposure, the American Academy of Pediatricians this week called for stricter regulations and enhanced funding to prevent such cases.
“We now know that there is no safe level of blood lead concentration for children, and the best ‘treatment’ for lead poisoning is to prevent any exposure before it happens,” said Dr. Jennifer Lowry, chair of the AAP Council on Environmental Health and an author of the policy statement.
“Most existing lead standards fail to protect children. They provide only an illusion of safety,” she said. “Instead we need to expand the funding and technical guidance for local and state governments to remove lead hazards from children’s homes.”
Until recently, children were identified as having a blood lead “level of concern” if test results showed a concentration of 10 or more micrograms per deciliter. But evidence now indicates problems — including lower IQ scores and academic performance, inattention, impulsivity, aggression and hyperactivity — begin at levels less than half that amount.