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Investigation Finds High Lead Poisoning Rates In St. Joseph

Charlie Szymanski, Christine Chan, Matt Weber
This map shows the worst lead poisoning hotspots in the country.

This story was updated at 2:39 with comments from a spokeswoman for the St. Joseph Health Department.

More than 15 percent of children tested in seven census tracts in St. Joseph, Missouri, had elevated lead levels, according to an investigation by Reuters.

That was more than triple Missouri’s average of 5 percent, Reuters reported.

The news agency examined neighborhood-level blood testing results across the country, providing a detailed look at where efforts over decades to eradicate lead poisoning have fallen short.

Reuters said it found nearly 3,000 areas nationwide with lead poisoning rates at least double those found in Flint, Michigan, where children were exposed to lead in their drinking water. More than 1,100 areas had four times Flint’s rate of elevated lead levels.

The information was gathered from state health departments and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC estimates that 2.5 percent of children up to the age of 6 nationwide have elevated lead levels in their blood, defined as 5 micrograms or more per deciliter.

Although lead was phased out of paint and gasoline in the late 1970s and children’s blood lead levels have dropped more than 90 percent, according to Reuters, lead hazards continue to pose risks in many communities.

The Reuters investigation noted that St. Joseph has many old homes with lead paint and plumbing.

Stephanie Malita, a spokeswoman with the St. Joseph Health Department, said that the city might show a higher incidence of lead poisoning because pediatricians actively screen for it. 

"The fact that we screen for it regularly in our community could have something to say about why our rates are higher, because we're actually capturing them," she said. 

Reuters also found that in Viburnum, Missouri, a six-hour drive southeast of St. Joseph and part of a mining district known as the Lead Belt, 30 percent of children showed elevated test levels – the   highest rate in the state.



The Doe Run Company, which operates mining and smelting works in the area, has been ordered by the EPA to clean up lead contamination from 150 properties in the area and test the soil at 250 more, according to Reuters.

Other cities with neighborhoods containing high percentages of children with elevated lead levels, according to Reuters, included Milwaukee, Baltimore, Cleveland and South Bend, Indiana.

All told, Reuters said it found 2,606 census tracts and 278 zip code areas with lead poisoning rates at least twice Flint’s rate. It also found that in some of the country’s highest risk areas, funds to test children for lead are tight and many children have gone untested.

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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