A few days ago, acknowledging several years of new medical research, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lowered their official designation for lead toxicity by 50%, from 10 ug/dliter to 5 ug/dliter measured in a person's blood. That increases by about 500% the number of children who are considered impaired by lead toxicity.
"There is no safe level [of lead exposure]," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and one of the nation's experts on lead toxicity. "Lead is toxic to the developing brain at low levels. Prenatal exposure causes brain damage." Indeed, third-grade test scores, which are highly correlated with high-school drop out rates, were significantly lower among children exposed to any lead--with blood levels as low as 3 or 4 ug/dliter. Even low levels can cause decreased intelligence and behavior disorders, like aggressive and criminal behavior and the effects can turn up years later.
The 800 lb gorilla of heavy metal contamination in Utah is the Rio Tinto copper mine and smelter.
In the Rio Tinto dust cloud that frequently obscures our mountains is a heavy metal stew of lead, arsenic, cadmium. and mercury that ultimately permeates our air, water, and soil. Even radioactive metals like uranium and thorium are found in Rio Tinto's coal power plant emissions in low concentrations. The mine is the nation's third largest source of toxic elements released into the environment, and because of Rio Tinto Utah ranks third among all states and Salt Lake County ranks third among all counties. Last year Forbes magazine ranked Salt Lake City as the nineth most toxic city in the country, primarily because of Rio Tinto.
Kennecott officials are quick to dismiss this toxicity ranking and the 200 million pounds of toxic material attributed to their operations by characterizing it as just a scary sounding name for all the dirt, rock and ore that they blast, shovel, haul and crush. In doing so they ignore the fact that all that dirt and rock has does in fact have heavy metals in it, causing everyone downwind in Salt Lake and Utah Counties to be on the receiving end of a fine mist of low toxicity every day, 24/7 for decades on end. Heavy metals are not combustible, do not degrade and cannot be destroyed, so the levels in our environment steadily increase over time.
Each dollar invested in lead paint hazard control results in a return of $17 to $221 in economic benefits to those whose lead exposure is thereby reduced. There is no reason to believe that the flip side of that equation wouldn’t be equally descriptive of the economic loss incurred by our community because of the lost intellectual capacity from this constant heavy metal shower rained down upon our children, especially the most vulnerable, those in their mothers’ womb.
We recently found out that Utah has the highest rate of autism of any state in the US, one out of every 32 Utah boys. Evidence is mounting that the rising rates of this often tragic condition is likely triggered by environmental exposures, and at the top of that list of suspects are heavy metals.
Given Utah's extraordinarily high rates of autism, given this new threshold for lead toxicity, given that right next door to the Rio Tinto mine the Great Salt Lake has the highest levels of mercury of any body of water in the United States, it is long overdue that those who sit in the board room at Rio Tinto stop greenwashing their operations, stop poisoning the residents of Utah and start accepting responsibility for their role in this ongoing disaster.
Dr. Brian Moench
President, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment