By Burt Hubbard
In 2013, the most recent year for which detailed data are available, more than 5,500 mostly low-income toddlers and young children in Denver were tested for lead exposure.
More than 4 percent had elevated lead levels, according to preliminary tests.
Exposure to lead could have major long-term health impacts for children growing up in the city’s older neighborhoods. Lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, and learning and behavioral problems, including lower IQ and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Lead risks to children persist in Denver despite decades of cleanup from smelters spewing toxic chemicals into yards and awareness campaigns that focused on the problems of lead-based paint in older homes.
A Colorado Trust analysis of test results by zip code in Denver found 239 of the 5,500 children tested in Denver in 2013 had 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl) or higher of lead in their blood, according primarily to capillary blood tests, which are more commonly administered but less reliable than venous exams. It’s also important to note that the 5,500 children screened for lead is likely to be only a fraction of those eligible, per state guidelines.
Brendan Doyle with the Denver Department of Environmental Health (DEH) said officials only respond to cases that are confirmed by a more accurate venous blood test. The process of confirming tests is meant to eliminate false positives, and generally results in a lower rate of children found to have elevated lead in their blood. According to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) records, Denver’s confirmed rate of elevated blood-lead levels in children was 4.5 percent in 2010; 3.2 percent in 2013; and 2 percent in 2014. Once confirmed, the city does a home inspection to attempt to pinpoint the source of the lead.
Another 127 children tested between 4 and 5 mcg/dl, according to Denver DEH records.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no lead levels in children are healthy, with 5 mcg/dl considered to be much higher than most, and a cause for concern.
The testing results varied dramatically by neighborhood. Denver DEH records from 52 zip codes showed that more than 60 percent of the elevated lead cases were in just five of the zip codes—the largely low-income, immigrant neighborhoods of Montbello, southwest and northwest Denver and the Elyria-Swansea area near the intersection of interstates 25 and 70.
In northwest Denver and the Elyria-Swansea area, almost one out of every 10 children tested had more than 5 mcg/dl of lead in their blood.
State guidelines call for all young children in low-income families, or living in housing built before lead paint was banned in 1978, to be tested for elevated lead levels in their blood. But Gene Hook, an environmental scientist at the Denver DEH, said Denver medical providers have been particularly aggressive in testing because of the city’s history of smelters and manufacturing.
Denver Health has long had a goal of screening all 1- and 2-year-old patients for lead, not just those from low-income families. “Most other places [in the state] haven’t done that,” Hook said.
Doctors and clinics report test results to CDPHE. Any elevated levels above 5 mcg/dl in Denver are forwarded to the Denver DEH.
If the source is the result of run-down conditions in a rental home, the city can take enforcement action against the landlord. If the homeowner occupies the property, the city tries to educate the owner on how to deal with lead contamination, Doyle said.
The city has had federal grants in the past to give owners financial help to remediate the lead sources. During a three-year period ending in 2013, the city was able to get about 200 homes remediated, Doyle said. The average cost for remediation was $8,500 to $9,000 per property.
However, the last grant ran out in 2013 and the city has not been able to renew the funding since. It will try again next year, Doyle said: “It would be wonderful if we had a continuous flow of money to [perform remediation].”
Many of the neighborhoods with the highest number of children with elevated levels include low-income families renting older, pre-1978 housing that still may have lead-based paint covering their walls, and soil contaminated from lead dust accumulated over the years.
“Typically, we see kids exposed from older housing stock,” Doyle said. “They may be living in substandard housing.”
In other cases, children from immigrant and refugee families may have even come into contact with lead before they settled in Colorado.
“Occasionally, we have refugee families that may have brought cookware with them [that can contain lead],” Doyle said. “Some of them do have some [folk] remedies they have brought with them that have tested high for lead.”
In the case of Elyria-Swansea, decades of metal smeltering operations contaminated yards with arsenic and lead. In the most recent U.S. Census surveys, the population in the area’s zip code was 70 percent Latino and 36 percent living in poverty. Twenty-five percent were immigrants.
The neighborhoods were slated for cleanup in 1999 after the area was designated as a Superfund site, meaning they were prioritized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for remediation. That led to testing of about 4,000 homes and the cleanup of more than 800 homes and yards that had elevated levels of lead and arsenic, said Jennifer Chergo, spokeswoman for the EPA’s Denver regional office.
“We did a huge community health program in the Superfund area,” Hook said. “We knocked on every door multiple times; we were doing blood testing, then trying to identify kids. There was a lot of interventions and a lot of education in that part of the city.”
However, 55 homes and yards have either not been tested or have elevated lead levels that have not been addressed because the owners have refused to allow the EPA on the grounds to test or conduct cleanup, Chergo said.
Several years ago, the EPA even filed formal notices with the Denver Office of the Clerk and Recorder against the properties that would show up during title searches as part of selling the homes, Chergo said. In addition, the EPA sends notices to the occupants every year, warning of the situation.
However, in two northeast Denver homes with small children, renters said they were unaware that lead contamination in the soil was a potential problem.
At another one, in the Cole neighborhood, the renter, Mike Marquez, said he was not aware that the owner had not had the arsenic and lead cleaned up. He thought the letter from the EPA on lead problems applied to the entire area and not just his house.
“Guess I’ll be looking for a new house,” said Marquez, who pays $1,300 per month in rent.
Chergo confirmed that two other homes are owned by companies controlled by anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce. Both homes were boarded up and appeared unoccupied.
Another federal agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), owned one through a foreclosure that it sold in 2013—without any testing or cleanup, according to public records.
Christine Baumann, spokeswoman for HUD’s Denver regional office, said nothing in the agency’s file on the sale indicated problems with lead in the soil.
“HUD was not aware of the fact that the house was in an EPA cleanup site and needed to be tested for lead and arsenic contamination,” Baumann said in an email.
However, the agency did inform the buyer of potential lead problems in the paint since the home was built before 1978, she said.
The other areas with the highest number of those children tested who had elevated lead levels were also predominately Latino, with large numbers of immigrants and low-income households.
The zip code with the largest number of elevated lead-test results in children, 49, includes the Athmar, Westwood and Mar Lee neighborhoods of southwest Denver. Almost 90 percent of the homes in the area were built before 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Another 27 children with elevated lead lived in the zip code just to the north that includes the Lincoln Park and Sun Valley neighborhoods, among the poorest in the city. The two areas have poverty rates between 22 percent and 29 percent.
The primary Montbello zip code had 18 children with elevated blood-lead tests. Here, almost 30 percent of the mostly Latino and black residents live in poverty. Thirty percent are immigrants. However, only 40 percent of the homes were constructed before 1980.
Doyle said many of the Montbello cases involved refugee families whose children had elevated lead levels when they entered the country.
Some resources exist to help address the problem. The Denver Urban Renewal Authority can obtain no- or low-interest loans for homeowners to remediate lead problems and conduct other repair work, said Taryn Lewis, a housing manager with the agency.
But sometimes a low-cost loan isn’t enough.
Lewis recalled a case several months ago in which a woman with a 3-year-old child with high lead levels was eligible for a remediation loan, but turned it down for reasons she never fully articulated.
“She just chose not to,” Lewis said. “It made us very sad. Our whole staff was willing to put in our personal dollars so that she didn’t have to get a loan.”
Kristin Jones contributed reporting. Map by Anna Boiko-Weyrauch.