As pediatricians, we are aware of the growing evidence that even low levels of lead exposure can cause long-term damage to children’s development, which is why we are outraged that steps to reduce lead exposure at Water Gremlin weren’t effective sooner.
The problem of elevated lead levels in the children of workers at this plant has been known since 2017, and even though county and state health departments have been working with the company to rectify the issue, at least 12 children of Water Gremlin employees have been found to have elevated lead levels.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recognizes that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. Although childhood lead exposure has decreased dramatically since the 1970s because of policy changes and risk assessments at well-child visits, lead persists as an environmental contaminant. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, a total of 757 children under 6 had elevated blood levels in 2017.
Lead poisoning can occur slowly, over several months or years, and can cause symptoms in children such as developmental delays and learning difficulties. Severe cases of lead poisoning can lead to death, which is what happened to a child in Minneapolis almost 15 years ago after accidental ingestion of a lead-containing Reebok charm.
There are steps that parents, companies and communities can take to reduce exposure to lead and prevent poisoning, however.
In our practices, when we find a child to have an elevated lead level, we immediately try to identify the source of the lead, including old, peeling paint in the home or exposure to lead in the soil. We also ask the family about any occupations or hobbies that might involve lead — such as working with batteries or fishing sinkers (as is the case at Water Gremlin) or making stained glass windows. When the source is identified, either by history or investigation by the health department, immediate attention is provided to resolve the problem.
In our experience, never would two years go by before the problem is resolved.
At Water Gremlin, the cause of the elevated lead levels in these children was due to lead dust being brought home by their parent(s) who work at the plant. Based on repeat tests of blood lead levels in employees and children, the company should have been forced to rectify the situation sooner.
Children deserve to be able to grow and develop without being exposed to known toxic agents. The fact that many of these children are also part of a minority community (Hmong), raises the issue of social disparity and racial inequity.
We applaud the Star Tribune for its Nov. 2 editorial (“State should rein in Water Gremlin”) and support Gov. Tim Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm as they attempt to solve this problem. And we urge them to prioritize the health of children who may have been inadvertently exposed to lead over the needs of the company or even its employees who want to return to work.
Dr. Lori DeFrance is president of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Sheldon Berkowitz is the chapter’s vice president. On Twitter: @sheldonberkowi1.