Russia and U.S. Fight Lead Threat Together

As Russia strives to define and eventually conquer its lead problems, it stands to benefit from growing cooperation with the United States, a nation with a wealth of experience to share from its own unhappy past.

For most of the century, the United States was saturated with lead hazards. But in the past 20 years it has markedly decreased its lead dependence, essentially banning lead in gasoline, food cans, paint, and plumbing. Meanwhile, the practice of testing children for blood lead levels has spread and informational networks have grown across the nation.

While problems still remain, the benefits of reform have been tremendous. The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted between 1988 and 1991 found that the mean blood lead levels of Americans between one and 74 years of age fell by 78 percent from the previous large-scale survey, conducted 12 years earlier. They fell from 12.8 milligrams per deciliter to 2.8 milligrams per deciliter.

"The U.S. experience -- both good and bad -- provides an adaptable model for other countries, not a blueprint, but an adaptable model," said Jim Rochow of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance to Prevent Childhood Lead Poisoning.

"We hope they'll learn from our mistakes. For instance, it took us 20 years to phase out leaded gas."

Russian-American joint work on the lead problem began in earnest just a few years ago, but since then the two country's interaction has been intensive.

In 1994, Rochow was put in touch with Dr. Alexei Yablokov, director of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow, and their organizations have been working together ever since under the umbrella of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Health Committee. Soon the Alliance will publish a Russian version of its "International Action Plan" against lead poisoning, which calls for a worldwide coordinated policy of prevention. Meanwhile, Yablokov's Center sponsors the Russian-American Lead Project, which conducts intensive research and policy work.

In September 1995, Russian and American organizations had a chance to meet up at a week-long workshop in Moscow sponsored by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Science.

That workshop gave impetus to a new joint U.S.-Russian project in which 600 children were tested in Saratov for lead poisoning. Researchers tested the children's blood and hair, in addition to testing the area's soil, dust, paint, and water. The results will be announced at a Moscow conference to be held from Jan. 14 to 16.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development is funding the work of the Russian State Environmental Protection Committee and other organizations on a comprehensive white paper about the lead problem in Russia. The paper will be released Dec. 30.