Russia's Undertested Children Face Lead Poisoning Menace

In the summer of 1994, Ken Kalfus, his wife Inga Saffron and their 15-month-old daughter, Sky, prepared to move to Moscow from the United States. Knowing about Russia's less-than-sterling ecological reputation, they decided to have Sky's blood-lead level tested before they left, so they would have a baseline level to compare a future test with.

The suspicions that led to that first test proved to be well-founded. This past summer the family traveled back to the United States, where Sky was tested again. After two years in Moscow, her blood-lead level had risen from five micrograms per deciliter to 15. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention a level of 10 or above in a child is cause for concern.

The increase in Sky's blood-lead level is indicative of a broader problem: Russia has traditionally viewed lead poisoning as a disease of the smelter, not of the kindergarten, and as a result the country has overlooked the considerable dangers of lead poisoning for children.

Children in Russian cities are potentially at risk from lead in their homes, at the playground, at the dinner table and on the streets. Experts say that while lead exists in paint, cans of food and elsewhere, one of the most pervasive hazards comes from leaded gasoline, which spews lead into the air and the soil.

The extent of the danger, however, is unclear because Russian officials often check lead levels in the environment and in people using different methods than the rest of the world, and because there have been no national health studies of blood-lead levels.

For now, scientists can only estimate how widespread lead poisoning is among Russian children -- and the initial prognosis is unsettling. Based on a study of environmental conditions in Russian cities, 44 percent of children in those cities are "at risk" of having blood levels higher than 10, according to Dr. Valery Snakin of the Russian Ecological Federal Information Agency.

What precisely is this risk? Lead causes a quantifiable decrease in children's intelligence quotient, according to the World Health Organization. It can also cause hyperactivity, aggressiveness, decreased attention span, slowed or stunted growth, liver and kidney problems, and encephalopathy, a serious brain disease.

Lead poisoning can also harm adults, affecting the unborn children of pregnant women and causing infertility in men, among other problems. But while adult problems are most common for those who work surrounded by lead, in the general community, those most as risk are children between birth and 4 years of age.

The poison can enter children's systems when they breathe it in the air, absorb it through their skin, or, most commonly, put their hands in their mouths after playing with toxic soil, dust or paint.

There are usually no visible symptoms and the poison works insidiously. But for Kalfus and Saffron, the invisible menace has become tangible. "When people move to Moscow with kids, they are always wondering about radiation, heavy metals, water and lead, but the dangers are never confirmed," said Saffron. "But [we've had] a concrete confirmation of an environmental risk. "

If Sky's situation worsens, they say, they're prepared to return home.

One of the most obvious culprits for lead poisoning is leaded gasoline -- but eliminating the fuel in Russia has proven easier said than done.

Since 1956, leaded gas has been banned in Moscow several times -- most recently in 1992.

Unfortunately, impressive official pronouncements have been hard to enforce. "It was banned, but it was a slogan. It never worked," said Dr. Anna Orlova, the director of the Russian-American Lead Project of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy.

Leaded gas continues to be used because it continues to be produced -- at cheaper prices than leaded gas. While Moscow's one oil refinery produces exclusively unleaded fuel, cheap leaded fuel from outside Moscow is sometimes delivered to gas stations, according to Victor Kurmakayev of Moskompriroda, the Moscow Committee for the Protection of the Environment and Natural Resources.

While Moscow Transport Inspection carries out year-round inspections of gas stations, leveling fines for any lead found, Orlova said that if leaded gas has not been available locally, drivers have simply gotten it in the suburbs.

Dr. Elena Gurvich of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who is coordinating the preparation of a white paper on Russia's lead problems, said the technology in many of the refineries is archaic and the financial resources are not available to update them into modern, unleaded-only plants.

Orlova, who is currently working on lead issues at Johns Hopkins University, is more optimistic. "Refineries know well what they should change and they are doing it even now," she said. "They understand that this is their future."

Statistics seem to indicate that Russia has started weaning itself from leaded gas. Unleaded fuel now accounts for 60 percent of the total gas usage in Russia, an improvement of almost 10 percent in the last five years, according to Dr. Yevgeny Minayev of the Ministry of Fuel and Energy.

But once again, official statistics don't always translate to street-level reality. Lead experts note that auto transport has more than doubled in the past five years, so while the leaded-gas "market share" may have gone down, the total amount used may not have.

Lead ends up in the air from leaded gasoline and industry -- but how much is in Moscow's air is subject to question.

The Russian air-quality agency, Roskomgidromet, measures air pollution at 16 posts in Moscow, taking stock of numerous airborne pollutants, one of which is lead. For the past few years, measurements have yielded a figure three times lower than the government's "maximum allowable concentration" of lead in air, a number which is itself five times lower than the U.S. limit, according to Anatoly Yakovlev from the air-quality agency.

But Roskomgidromet only measures lead concentration after the substance has scattered in the air, not the immediate emissions automobiles and factories constantly spill out into the air.

Moskompriroda's Tatyana Zakharova and Valery Snakin of REFIA say it is practically impossible to get an accurate measurement of the amount of lead spewed by automobiles. Snakin said that scientists generally try to estimate the amount of lead in the air by taking the amount of leaded gas used and assuming that 95 percent of the lead gets into the air.

Yakovlev countered that the lead in Moscow air comes more from industry than from automobiles, a point that is hotly debated by other scientists. Regardless of the debate, lead emissions into Moscow air multiplied more than six times between 1988 and 1993, according to Moskompriroda.

Pairing old-fashioned Russian forest wisdom with a nascent lead awareness, Oleg Anayev and Olya Popova know not to eat mushrooms grown by the roadside. And as the parents of 10-month-old Nastya, they know to keep the floor dust-free. This Moscow family is taking the first steps of prevention from the dangers of lead found in soil. This is a major trouble spot -- while lead hovers in the air for only a short time, it can last in the soil for more than 30 years.

Lead emissions from cars and factories settle into the soil, which sometimes ends up in the house as dust. This dust also gets sprinkled on roadside vegetables. In addition, lead can settle in soil where vegetables are grown or animals eat grass, and then lead becomes part of the food chain.

Moskompriroda officials say that 7.8 percent of Moscow's soil exceeds a loose standard called the "approximate allowable concentration" of lead in soil -- 130 milligrams per kilogram. The highest concentrations of lead were found near railroads and major highways and in the city center.

Orlova said the lead problem in Moscow is likely more serious than Moskompriroda's figures indicate because official measuring methods and equipment are outmoded. "All of this information is absolutely wrong," said Orlova of Moskompriroda's statistics. "They're providing underestimates."

The USAID-funded white-paper findings support the hypothesis that the soil lead problem is serious in Russia.

In 120 cities studied, 80 percent of the soil exceeded in lead content the approximate allowable concentration. This means that more than 10 million citizens living in Russian cities have contact with soil that exceeds this approximate allowable level -- in some cities, the soil lead content was 10 times this level.

While the information about lead in the air and soil is murky and potentially disturbing, there are some areas of good news.

Tests of Moscow's water, for example, have yielded results that meet or better the standards for lead content set by the U.S. and Japan, primarily because there is neither lead nor lead solder in the city's pipes. "There is not one meter of lead pipe in Moscow," proudly asserted Nina Sadova from Mosvokokanal, the city's water agency.

Paint, which has been a huge problem in the United States, is also not considered a big issue in Russia. White-lead-based paint -- which can contain up to 60 percent lead -- was banned in 1930, reducing the most serious risk. However lead is present at lower concentrations in other types of paint.

Two other areas do present hazards. Auto batteries, which are not commonly recycled in Russia, are dangerous if they are left to corrode in vacant lots.

In addition, lead-soldered food cans continue to be produced and sold in Russia. The lead from these cans leaches into the food, especially acidic food, and then is ingested. The longer the food remains in the can, the more lead can get into the food. A study in Moscow by Orlova found high concentrations of lead in canned foods such as evaporated milk.

The fact that basic items such as food cans are still soldered with lead is a sign of how far Russia still has to go to deal with the dangers of lead poisoning. Another sign is that children are still tested for lead primarily using hair or urine samples, while blood tests are the only accurate measure of lead poisoning.

Experts say that until government agencies coordinate their policies, until testing methods meet world standards, and until national blood studies are undertaken to truly assess the problem, progress will be limited.

"Nobody knows the scale of the problem and what priorities to set," said Orlova. "The information is very inadequate."

When Alexei Yablokov, the director of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, approached her for information to help the government develop a prevention program, Orlova recalled she was stymied.

"Yablokov wanted to know how many kids are poisoned, how many pregnant women are at risk of having lead-poisoned babies. 'Give me a number,' he said, 'I'll go to Chernomyrdin.' But we couldn't tell him."