An investigation by USA Today has found that Americans, especially children, across the country who live near former lead “smelter” factories are being exposed to toxic levels of lead in the soil and the government knew of the potential for lead contamination but failed to warn of the danger.
From the 1930’s to 1960’s, lead smelter factories in the United States released lead particles into the environment from smokestacks and other factory operations. Once airborne, the heavier lead particles landed closest to the factory, with the wind carrying lighter particles to land in surrounding areas in what is called a “fallout zone.”
Residential homes and schools are often located in this fallout zone, and sometimes built directly on the sites of former lead smelting facilities.
According to Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, lead in soil does not biodegrade over time and remains in soils for thousands of years.
Children exposed to lead through contact with the soil are most at risk for lead poisoning. Exposure to high levels of lead can be fatal. Even at low levels, lead poisoning can affect physical and mental development, such as slowing growth and causing learning difficulties.
In 2001, a researcher named William Eckel authored an article published in the American Journal of Public Health entitled Discovering Unrecognized Lead-Smelting Sites by Historical Methods warning of the health dangers near sites of old lead smelter facilities. Eckel compiled a list of 639 potential lead smelting sites, more than 400 of which were previously unknown to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state agencies. The EPA requested and received a copy of that list, which the agency distributed to its regional offices in September 2001.
“Appropriate action has been taken at most of the sites on the Eckel’s list,” the EPA said. “Of the 464 sites, almost all have been pre-screened or assessed by EPA or the states. EPA is committed to screening any remaining sites on the Eckel’s list this summer to evaluate whether they have the potential to pose risk. In addition, EPA is committed to reevaluating any site where new information suggests that there may be a public health issue of concern.”
However, the EPA told USA Today that recordkeeping for many of the sites on the list are “incomplete.”
The EPA published a report in 2007 of progress made on assessing sites on the list. Only two of ten EPA regional offices had initiated smelter site discovery based upon Eckel’s list. The report cited trouble locating the sites or evidence that smelting took place, and some sites were already undergoing remediation through state or private programs.
USA Today investigated what actions the EPA took at sites on Eckel’s list, starting with having reporters research all 464 sites in 31 states by combing through historical maps, old phone books, corporate filings, property records, photo archives and other historical sources, as well as filing public records requests with federal and state government agencies. They found the EPA tested soil samples at some of the sites, and in some cases soil samples from surrounding neighborhoods, but it failed to address dozens of sites at all and others received only a record review or drive-by visit. The newspaper also found cases where the EPA and state agencies performed soil sampling that showed high levels of lead, but took no action to clean up the contamination and did nothing to warn the public.
Reporters also conducted soil sampling of 21 neighborhoods near former smelting facilities in thirteen states during the investigation, all of which showed potentially dangerous lead levels in the soil.
USA Today has identified more than 230 residential neighborhoods near former lead smelting facilities where children and families may be at risk for lead exposure. People can find out if they live near one of these facilities on this map.
The investigation has prompted action by government officials in fourteen states.
New York City officials closed four ball fields at Brooklyn’s Red Hook Park in March after USA Today profiled the site in its investigation. Testing showed levels of lead five times the EPA’s hazard level left behind from Columbia Smelting and Refining Works that once operated on that site.
“The risk of exposure is small and we have taken immediate cautionary action by covering bare soil and reseeding parts of the outfield and adding clay to the infield, as well as adding clay to a nearby bleacher area,” City of New York Parks & Recreation said in a release. “The area will be closed for 6-8 weeks to allow for sufficient grass growth. The City will conduct regular assessments of the impacted areas to ensure that treatments remain intact while developing a longer-term solution.”
However, testing during the investigation also showed lead in the grass courtyards of Red Hook Houses across the street from the park, one of Brooklyn’s oldest and largest public housing complexes. More information about USA Today’s investigation into Columbia Smelting and Refining Works can be found here.
The investigation has prompted U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown to call for a Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee hearing on exposure to lead from former smelter facilities.