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Lead has played a pivotal role in the history of Missouri. More than 17 million tons of lead have come out of the ground in the state over the last 300 years, and that has left a lasting impact on the state economically, environmentally and culturally. KBIA is exploring that history —and future—in our special series The Legacy of Lead.

Educating a County on Lead Risks

Daniela Vidal

Penny Crump sits at her desk, and opens up a lavender-colored binder she calls her “lead binder.”

As the lead coordinator for Jefferson County’s Health Department, she’s in charge of keeping track of the children in the county who have elevated lead levels. Each case is in that lavender binder.

“This is the list of my kids. So this is basically the one I just got that was high. The date we opened her case. When is she next due?” she said.

Crump makes phone calls to parents, guardians and doctors to make sure they’re following up on the child’s lead testing.

In some areas of Jefferson County, all children under the age of 6 are required to be tested for lead exposure because of former and current lead mining and smelting operations.Everywhere else in the county, parents fill out a survey first to determine risk of exposure. Depending on the answers, kids get their blood levels tested. If a kid tests high, it’s Crumps job to make sure parents understand what steps they need to take at home to bring those lead levels down.

Credit Daniela Vidal / KBIA
Penny Crump

In any county lead paint or old pipes often pose risks. But in this region lead in the soil from former mining operations or lead being tracked into the home by friends or family members pose extra threats.

Making sure people know about that exposure is another piece of Crump’s lead education.

I'm going to send you some information in the mail. If your child isn't on vitamins with iron, talk to your doctor about getting those started,” she said as she left a message with a parent.

Crump will also send information about cleaning surfaces and toys with a wet rag to make sure any lead dust is removed. She’ll even give kids a coloring book called “Leadosaurus: Be Alert! Lead Can Hurt!”

When a child’s lead levels test high enough, the county recommends a home inspection.

That’s another opportunity for parents to learn about how they can minimize the risks of coming into contact with lead.

Steve Sikes is one the guys who does those inspections. He’s the environmental supervisor for Jefferson County.  One of the first things he does at those inspections is sit down with the parents or guardians of the child.

“We kind of see what is in their environment, what are the hobbies of the parents, their jobs, look at the house itself. Is it an older home? is the paint in good condition? We're looking for hazards that could be the source of the lead for that child,” Sikes said.

He said he thinks his team only visits a fraction of the homes that may have lead exposure issues.  

The Environmental Protection Agency also has education efforts in Jefferson County. The agency is currently working to clean up the Big River in the county.

Elizabeth Kramer, a community involvement coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, talks with people about  what concerns or questions they might have about the lead in the cleanup process.

We believe that everyone has a chance to be heard we want to make sure that they're fully informed,” Kramer said.  “We provide educational materials. We do training with community members elected officials. We bring outreach materials. We provide technical assistance and work closely with the scientists that are experts on these sites.

But even with all this outreach, Crump said it’s tough to get people engaged.

“I've probably called 50 wrong numbers or disconnected or you've got the wrong number trying to reach out to people,” she said.

Sometimes parents just get frustrated by all the follow up calls and they stop responding, but Crump said,  We just want to make sure they're ok.”

Daniela Vidal is studying radio reporting at the University of Missouri. She worked at a freedom of the press organization this summer in Bogota, Colombia.