Lead: It Will Follow (Digging Through the Sudbury Soil Study)-By Janet Gibson

Northern Life, Greater Sudbury’s community newspaper, gave Republic of Mining.com permission to post Janet Gibson’s article. www.northernlife.ca

What people can do to reduce their exposure to this toxic heavy metal

(Third instalment of a four-part series) Sudbury Soils Study


The average citizen can get lost reading the $10 million Sudbury Soils Study, which sits in three volumes on a shelf at your local library. But it’s worth the read if you take a proactive attitude toward your health. Volume 2 is the human health risk assessment, done to find out if residents’ health was at risk from exposure to the soil, air, drinking water or food. Consultant Chris Wren and his colleagues concluded there were “no unacceptable health risks predicted for exposure to four of the six chemicals studied: arsenic, copper, cobalt and selenium.”

As for the other two chemicals – nickel and lead – “the study calculated a minimal risk of respiratory inflammation from lifetime exposures to airborne nickel in Copper Cliff and the west portion of Sudbury Centre.” As well, “there’s a potential risk for young children living in Copper Cliff, Coniston, Falconbridge and Sudbury Centre due to levels of lead in some soil samples and indoor dust.”

So what is lead? The Ministry of the Environment defines it as “ a toxic heavy metal that is released into the environment through industrial sources, the previous use of leaded gasoline (now banned), the disposal of lead wastes and the peeling or flaking of lead-based paints. House dust may contain lead originating from contaminated soil or lead-based paint.”

Northern Life talked to two experts – Kathleen Cooper, senior researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment – about the dangers of lead and how people can reduce their exposure to it.

“Lead is a brain poison,” Forman said. “It affects intelligence and the ability to learn.” Everyone is exposed to lead in small amounts, Cooper said, adding, “Lead is toxic at very low levels. People think lead is yesterday’s news, but that is absolutely not true because of the age of the housing stock.

Twenty-five per cent of the children in Canada live in pre-1960 houses.” The soil outside a house may contain a low
amount of lead. But if the house has old paint or lead pipes, residents are getting a “double whammy”, she said.

Reading the study online from her Lindsay home, Cooper found the average level of lead in the soil (35 milligrams per kilogram or parts per million) to be “relatively reassuring.” But the maximum reading of 790 is “elevated,” she said. “That’s dangerous.” She wondered how many were like that.

“You need to be concerned about the (maximum results).” (See table on this page.) A child will absorb 50 per cent of the lead he or she is exposed to, she said. “An adult will absorb 10 per cent.” Adults store lead in their bones while children circulate it in their blood.

Cooper wrote a primer called Child Health and the Environment that helps the public create a healthy environment for children. The primer, along with the Ministry of the Environment, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and Health Canada provide excellent tips on how to lead-proof your life.

Here are 10 of them:

• Make sure children eat healthy food with lots of calcium and iron. Children absorb more lead if they’re undernourished. Pregnant women should make sure they get enough calcium to avoid passing lead to their baby.
• Ask people to take their shoes off at the door.
• Use washable doormats.
• Clean up chipped paint.
• Change vacuum cleaner bags frequently and don’t let children change them.
• Take the lint out of the dryer.
• Consider getting rid of your carpets. In one square metre of old carpet, there is 400 times more dust and
dirt than on the bare floor beside it.
• Vacuum twice-a-week if you have crawling children and once a week of you have toddlers.
• Get rid of dust with soap and water.
• Make sure children wash their hands and face after playing outside.

The study concluded a blood lead reading is a true marker of someone’s exposure to lead. “But blood lead data isn’t available for the Greater Sudbury area,” it said. Residents can get a blood lead test if they “truly have concerns about lead in their households,” Wren said. “Do a blood lead measurement before doing something more radical such as soil removal.”

People can ask their family doctor or nurse practitioner to order the test. Canada doesn’t have good data about the
amount of lead in our blood, Cooper said. But that will soon change. Forman said Statistics Canada is doing a survey that includes testing blood for environmental contaminants such as lead.

The survey isn’t testing the blood of children under six, but future surveys may include them. “Children are the canaries in the mine shaft,” Forman said. “They are where we see the effects.”

 Where to get more information

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation gives instructions on its website for testing your soil. You can
order a soil test from a local lab.

Learn more at: healthyenvironmentforkids.ca ene.gov.on.ca/publications/6683e.pdf cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/co/maho/yohoyohe/ inaiqu/inaiqu_007.cfm hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/pubs/cons/leadplomb/issue-enjue_e.html (includes a drawing of the body and the health effects of various concentrations of lead)