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Q&A: What is the status of lead contamination and remediation in St. Louis, following Flint crisis?

Before it was banned in 1978, lead paint was commonly used in homes. In St. Louis, which is dominated by older housing stock, lead contamination is still prevalent.
Abby Lanes | Flickr
Before it was banned in 1978, lead paint was commonly used in homes. In St. Louis City, which is dominated by older housing stock, lead contamination is still prevalent.

The lead contamination water crisis in Flint, which has captivated American attention since early this year, has a lot of people asking: Could this happen where I live? On Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” several guests joined host Don Marsh to discuss the state of lead remediation in St. Louis and if a water crisis of such a magnitude could occur here.

Statistics show that lead in the water is less of a threat here than the persistent problem of old housing with lead paint. In 2013, 948 children in St. Louis tested with a lead level between 5-9 micrograms per deciliter of blood. That number has fallen drastically since 2003, when 4,139 children tested with a lead level that high.

Here’s who joined the show to answer our questions about lead contamination and remediation:

  • Frank Oswald, Building Division Commissioner, City of St. Louis
  • Curt Skouby, Director, Water Division, City of St. Louis
  • Matt Steiner, Epidemiologist, Health Department, City of St. Louis

Here are some of the questions we answered:
What shape are we in?

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Frank Oswald

“We’re in the best shape we’ve been in the long time,” said Oswald. “We have an active lead remediation program, we reach out to people, we do in the neighborhood of 6,000 inspections per year, lead inspections that have been requested. In addition, we do quite a bit of emphasis on preventing lead poisoning. We do that through housing conservation inspections. Our building inspectors do a great deal of looking for lead hazards and making sure those are abated before people move in.”

Why does it take so long to eliminate the problem of lead?

“The problem will not go away all-together entirely because older homes have lead paint in them,” said Oswald. “Lead paint was sold until the late ‘70s and the fact of the matter is that you’re not able to get rid of all of that paint. A lot of it is abatement, where you encapsulate the paint to reduce the paint and get rid of it. You’re not going to get rid of it 100% ever.”

Oswald said the city’s remediation program will be in service for a long time and offers free lead testing for homes. More information here.

How safe is our water?

“Our water is very safe,” said Skouby. “[Flint’s] issue is not our issue. They got in trouble for water quality when they switched sources and failed to address corrosion of their water.”

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Curt Skouby

“Until recently, your plumbing was allowed to have lead solder,” Skouby continued. “There’s also lead service-lines. They’re there, they’ve been there. When we treat the water, we treat it so it is not corrosive. It is hard, Alkalide water that tends to put down scale as opposed to soft, acidic water which tends to dissolve the pipe and plumbing from the inside. We take measures to make sure water is non-corrosive.”

“I don't know of any child in the city of St. Louis that has been lead poisoned by water," said Oswald.

The water division is regulated by the state of Missouri. The city is required to test water at homes regularly for lead contamination.

“The standard is that 90 percent of samples you take are less than 15 parts per billion,” said Skouby. “We easily met that the last time we did a round of samples. Our 90th percentile was 1.1 parts per billion. That’s considerably less than the 15 parts per billion where you have to take additional steps.”

Additionally, the city is treating water every day to standards of chemistry so it is not corrosive.

What problems do lead contamination cause?

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Matt Steiner

“The most common issues we see would be behavioral issues or reduced IQ,” said Steiner. “At really high concentrations, it can cause other symptoms but one of the issues is that exposure at lower levels is hard to detect without a blood test…there aren’t outer symptoms. We really need to encourage people, parents, pediatricians [to] test every child, every year. It is required in St. Louis city that every child receives a test on an annual basis up until age six.”

About 50% of kids in St. Louis city are tested each year and Steiner says that the number of kids getting tested dropped off after age one.

The city offers free medical testing for lead levels in blood. More information here.

How much does it cost to remediate a home?

“Since 2004, the city has done 72,000 units,” Oswald said. “We get lead remediation money from our building permits and have received $13.5 million on that. Through HUD, $19.6 million, that’s $33 million total. We spend a little over 8,000 per home.”

Remediation involves initial testing, scraping paint, replacing windows, lodging, repainting, and post-testing.

If you’re worried about your home, call the Citizen’s Service Bureau at 314-622-4800 and request a lead inspection — it is free. The Urban League also offers such services. You can call 314-615-3600 x 113 for more information.

Listen to the rest of the interview here to find out more about St. Louis’ lead remediation efforts:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.