In December, Reuters published a map on childhood lead poisoning across the nation. The story and accompanying map, “Off the Charts: The thousands of U.S. locales where lead poisoning is worse than Flint,” looked at where children were tested for lead and how many had high levels of the metal in their blood.
Severe lead poisoning can lead to seizures, coma and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For children, there is no such thing as a safe exposure to lead, which causes permanent neurological damage and behavioral disorders.
Even though lead paint and lead additive in gasoline were banned decades ago, the ongoing Flint, Michigan emergency highlighted that lead poisoning is still a problem in the United States.
According to Reuters, about 2.5 percent of American infants and children six and under have elevated lead levels in their blood. In Flint, 5 percent of the children screened had elevated levels. Meanwhile, in New Mexico between 2006 and 2015, those numbers were even higher in 29 communities statewide. Those included:
Albuquerque’s South Valley (5.06%), Albuquerque’s South Valley/Kirtland Air Force Base (6.67%), Animas (8.11%), Artesia (6.32%), Aztec (7.17%), Bluewater (7.69%), Chama (12.73%), Cloudcroft (13.33%), Cuba/Navajo Nation (10.49%), El Rito (7.69%), Hagerman (5.19%), Hurley (10.16%), La Plata (7.69%), Lordsburg (13.97%), Melrose (12.5%), Navajo/Navajo Nation (13.11%), Navajo City/Navajo Nation (22.22%), Placitas (6.9%), Prewitt (6.43%), Peralta/Bosque Farms/Isleta (7.62%), Sandia Park/Golden (6.9%), Sapello (11.76%), Silver City (6.89%), Socorro (5.37%), Tatum (5.56%), Tierra Amarilla (8.82%), Truth or Consequences (8.66%), Tucumcari (5.98%) and Williamsburg (11.11%).
Those percentages refer to elevated levels in children screened, not in the total population of children living in an area. In Cuba, for example, 324 children were tested and 10.49 percent of them had elevated lead levels.
The Reuters map also shows that in a significant portion of New Mexico, fewer than 5 percent of kids had been tested for lead. In some areas, there was no testing data at all.
Interested in both the bright spots and the blank spots on the map, I reached out to the New Mexico Department of Health. Surely their experts could talk with me about lead and testing, as well as what might be going on in individual communities. And since the reporters at Reuters had received that data from the agency itself, the results wouldn’t have been a surprise.
There was another problem, though.
Over the past few years, it has become nearly impossible for many reporters, including my colleagues at NM Political Report and many other outlets, to call a state employee and expect an answer beyond something like, “Sorry, can’t talk to you. All media inquiries go through the communications officer.”
That’s because Gov. Susana Martinez and her staff keep state employees off-limits to reporters.
Even when spokespeople do respond to reporters it’s often by email. That’s not just a matter of convenience. It’s a way to avoid saying something that hasn’t been sanitized, smoothed over and approved by layers of supervisors. It’s also a way to respond with a message, rather than answering the questions, and to shut down follow-up questions.
Gone are the days of having conversations with longtime or knowledgeable state employees and asking how a permit works or what some data might mean or what’s happening with an environmental grant.
Six years into the Martinez administration and with no close contacts at DOH, I skipped attempts at the normal, conversational step in the reporting process and contacted the agency’s public information officers, or taxpayer-funded spokespeople.
From the beginning, Jan. 13, I emailed questions and expressed confidence in the department’s experts to easily answer the questions and talk about the issues.
For a few years now, most of my requests for interviews and information have been ignored by the governor’s office and executive agencies such as the Interstate Stream Commission, Office of the State Engineer, Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
Of course, there are other ways to learn what’s going on, including talking with outside experts and retired employees and filing Inspection of Public Records Act requests. Sometimes, state employees will talk “off the record,” though they worry they’ll lose their jobs if they’re caught.
But I thought the lead story would be different. These were kids I was calling about. And there’s no other agency or expert who can explain what the state’s priorities might be when it comes to New Mexico’s protecting children.
Searching for information
While waiting for any response from DOH, I searched the agency’s website for information on lead testing and treatment, called pediatricians and wondered about the state agency whose employees are responsible for public health in New Mexico.
I imagine some DOH employees are parents who worry about their own children’s health. Many probably choose to work there because they care about the people who live in New Mexico and know firsthand how tricky poverty makes life for children.
Two big factors behind lead poisoning are poverty and living in older homes or apartments. In many states, including New Mexico, children under the age of six who are enrolled in Medicaid must be screened for lead when they are 12 and 24 months old.
From conversations with pediatricians, I learned that kids in New Mexico are exposed to lead in a variety of ways. Sometimes there are unusual circumstances—children or teens messing with lead bullets or lead-acid batteries—but often children are exposed to lead when playing with toys from Mexico or China, eating off dishes with lead-based glaze or drinking water from old plumbing with lead pipes or lead-based solder.
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One doctor explained that when parents bring their children to general practitioners, rather than pediatricians, they might not know to test the kids for lead. I wasn’t surprised to hear that when many New Mexico children are seen at a clinic or hospital, doctors are sometimes focused more on the immediate problems, including child abuse, than a chronic exposure to lead. And, I learned that testing for lead can be an expensive procedure that’s not always covered by insurance.
But I also wanted to understand what was happening in the 29 communities across the state where significant numbers of children had elevated lead levels.
I called one of the Reuters reporters at the end of January, then filed a records request under the Inspection of Public Records Act to receive the same data he and his colleagues used to make the map.
But the rows and columns of the spreadsheet couldn’t answer why 1,336 children were tested in Silver City and how nearly 7 percent of them ended up with elevated lead levels. Same goes for the 3,008 kids in Artesia (6.32% with elevated lead levels) and 17 in the tiny town of Sapello (11.76%).
I called and emailed my questions again—to the spokesman as well as to different DOH and state employees. When I did hear back from individual employees, even those outside the agency, they referred me to the spokesman.
Then in March, while talking with an attorney in the governor’s office, I mentioned feeling frustrated that so many of my questions go unanswered by state spokespeople.
The next evening, I received an email from one of the DOH spokesmen. He explained that the attached two-page fact sheet would address many of my questions.
The high stakes of silence
Right now, there’s an important case awaiting a decision in the First Judicial Court in Santa Fe. As many of our readers know, the three-day bench trial for the lawsuit the Santa Fe Reporter, which I wrote freelance stories for between 2003 and 2016, filed against the governor’s office wrapped up last Friday.
As Andy Lyman reported earlier this week, the alt-weekly filed the lawsuit in 2013, alleging the governor’s office repeatedly violated state public records laws and actively discriminated against the paper by not responding to requests for comment.
During the trial, staffers from Martinez’s office testified about their treatment of SFR compared to reporters from other outlets, including the Albuquerque Journal and local television stations.
Martinez’s former spokesman Enrique Knell testified that the office was busy and lacked adequate resources to respond to media requests. Even so, SFR’s attorney pointed out he responded to reporters at other outlets and even possibly sent those other reporters unsolicited information for news stories. Later, Knell testified that other reporters “visited him personally when requesting information and said it was possible the seemingly unsolicited emails were a result of previous in-person conversations.”
Martinez’s attorney also asked Knell, who now works at the state Regulation and Licensing Department, about the questions SFR’s reporters asked:
At one point [attorney Paul] Kennedy asked Knell, “When you got these emails from the Santa Fe Reporter, were they one or two sentences?”
“No, they were pretty long,” Knell replied.
I realize that while journalists watch lawsuits like this one very carefully, most other people may be yawning and wondering why reporters are complaining over who gets answers from the governor’s spokesman and who doesn’t.
When I read coverage of the trial, though, I thought about my questions to DOH, to the governor’s office and to many other state agencies over the past few years. Many, if not most of those questions have gone unanswered.
I also looked back at the list of questions I’ve been sending to DOH since January:
-As I understand it, all children enrolled in Medicaid must be tested for lead exposure at 12 and 24 months.
-What are the other reasons children would be tested?
-What happens with those results, in general?
-And what happens to a child whose tests come back with the presence of lead? What is the treatment?
-Does the agency identify what caused the exposure, and what might be done about it? (For example, who would pay for or help with the removal of lead pipes or paint or whatever was causing the problem?)
-Does the agency identify clusters or areas of concern? (For example, a particular neighborhood, or an area where people are drinking well water as opposed to being on a water system?)
-Then I have specific questions about certain zip codes and areas.
-Lastly, I have questions about the long-term impacts of lead exposure on children, and on communities where exposure levels are high.
I realize it’s a long list. But the questions seem easy enough to understand.
So, I’ll keep asking—and maybe some of you should, too.
On Monday, April 3, I sent one last email to the DOH spokesmen: “Who is available tomorrow to answer a few questions? Story runs on Wednesday. Thanks!”
We’ll update the story if we ever get any answers.
Update: On the afternoon this story was published, we received an email with this statement from DOH Secretary Lynn Gallagher: “Keeping children safe from lead poisoning is a priority for the Department of Health and for the state. At the community level, it requires everyone’s attention in order to prevent, what the CDC considers the most preventable environmental disease among young children. The Department of Health employs a team of health professionals who work with parents, pediatricians, other healthcare professionals, other state agencies, and the public to ensure appropriate testing, education and monitoring take place in a coordinated manner state-wide.”