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There is no safe level of lead in the blood for kids. We know kids are exposed to lead through water, and lead paint in older homes and even in schools. Elevated lead levels in blood have been linked to nervous system damage and lower IQ. Kara Holsopple talked with Dr. Carla Campbell from the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso about how to communicate the very real, and life-altering risks of lead exposure. Before teaching public health, she worked for years with children and families impacted by lead in Philadelphia.

Kara Holsopple: How can we talk about toxic environmental exposures without stigmatizing the people who have been affected?

Carla Campbell:  I saw many children in the lead poisoning clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. And when I spoke to parents, I would tell them that their children are at risk for developing a number of possible problems such as lower IQ or the behavioral or developmental problems. But that doesn’t mean that they definitively will get any of these problems. But there are risks, and that’s why we’re concerned.

The other side of the coin is encouraging parents to give their children as stimulating an environment as possible. There have been some studies that have shown that children tend to do better even if they’ve been exposed to lead with that type of stimulating environment. So parents helping kids from an early age to have an environment where you’re talking to children, you’re giving them new information, you’re engaged with the children. Some of our families wouldn’t necessarily be doing that all the time without a little bit of coaching and encouraging.

KH: So being a little more giving that family is something proactive they can do.

CC: Yes. And you know I don’t think lead poisoning is a death sentence — so giving families hope that you’d like to figure out what the source of lead is and and reduce or prevent further exposure. But I think giving parents hope that these kids have plenty of potential is important. And we always said that in the lead clinic. I don’t think these parents really felt a stigma. What I saw was just a concern for doing the best under the circumstances.

KH: Did you find it difficult talking with them about it?

CC: Yes, of course. I mean it was frustrating, with the landlords, getting them to do what needed to be done. Most of the children we dealt with were in rental properties, so the parents had less control over the property. It is a very difficult situation for parents, particularly if we think about fracking and a family owning property, and then finding out that they’re getting poisoned on their property. What do they do? You know, it’s it’s quite a dilemma. Eventually Philadelphia developed a lead court, and I was on the team of people that was helping to create it. It was a specialized court where the landlords, if they weren’t responding to the city’s orders to get rid of the lead hazards in a child’s home, they were hauled into court to explain to the judge why they weren’t doing the work. And with the potential to be fined as well. And so usually, that made a big difference. We did a study of the compliance with orders to remediate properties before the lead court came into effect, and then after lead court, and we found that there was about seven percent compliance with the orders to remediate before a lead court came in. And then about 77 percent compliance after lead court.

KH: When it comes to lead, there were some crusading doctors and researchers who raised the alarm. Is that the model that is that is that model applicable to other types of pollution that kids are exposed to, like ambient air pollution?

CC: There were researchers like Herb Needleman, and a lot of action on the public health front with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally getting on board to also help reduce exposures. So I think that could be a model for other other exposures. But I think it’s also important that the public, particularly the public affected–for instance people affected by fracking in a certain community–I think it’s important for them to come out and be vocal, as well. Sometimes that’s done through environmental justice groups that spring up and provide a more organized way to deal with a problem, for instance with Love Canal way back in the 80s. So I think there is a role for grassroots groups as well as the experts that can speak out against these exposures.

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Dr. Carla Campbell teaches in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso.