MUNCIE, IN — Health officials are testing lead levels in the blood of children whose parents work at a central Indiana lead smelting plant amid concerns those workers are tracking lead home on their clothing, exposing their kids to the toxic metal that can harm youngsters' brains.
The Indiana State Department of Health plans to analyze the blood samples being collected this week and next by the Delaware County Health Department from children of workers at Exide Technologies' Muncie battery-recycling plant, and also from pregnant women.
Dr. Robert Byrn, who's worked as a pediatrician in Muncie since 2006, said he noticed years ago that that children with high lead levels often had a parent employed at Exide's Muncie smelter, where workers recover lead from spent lead-acid automotive batteries and other batteries.
"Over the past five to 10 years I've suspected based on some kids I've seen in the office that there could be a link with the parent's occupation at the Exide facility," Bryn told Indianapolis television station WRTV.
A report filed last June by an inspector with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management quotes the Delaware County Health Department as saying that the children of two Exide employees have required medical treatment for lead poisoning.
In that report, obtained by The (Muncie) Star Press, the IDEM inspector wrote that testing by county health officials found high lead levels on the driver's side floorboard of the vehicles of Exide workers and along the paths those workers walked between their homes and home parking areas — "areas typically used by the employees upon returning home," it states.
No other sources of lead, such as lead-based paint, were found in the homes, the report said.
Brodie Cook, director of the county health department's environmental health division, said in a complaint filed with IDEM that "several of these cases have revealed connections to the Exide plant, and we believe that this business's activities are a likely source of this lead exposure," The Star reported.
Lead can cause miscarriages and premature births, while pregnant women can pass the metal onto their babies during pregnancy or through breast milk. The heavy metal is particularly dangerous for infants and young children because even at low levels it can cause serious long-term health problems, including reduced intelligence, impaired hearing and irritability.
Exide Technologies said in a statement that it's aware of "two isolated instances" being investigated by the Delaware County Health Department. The company said it has "reeducated" plant employees on workplace policies, procedures and hygiene practices "designed to prevent employees from leaving its facilities with lead or other chemical residues on their clothes."
The company said it's working with State Department of Health on blood lead testing in Muncie this week and next.
Jennifer O'Malley, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said its lab will analyze the blood samples collected by Delaware County health officials and help with education. The lead testing is focusing on children under age 7 and pregnant women, she said.
"We hope that families whose children may have been exposed will take advantage of this free testing opportunity so that appropriate measures can be taken to eliminate exposure and prevent lasting health effects," O'Malley said in a statement.