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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Removing High Lead from Low Income Community

Air Date: Week of

Experts disagree on what is the safest method to clean up lead- contaminated soil, and some attempts to remove it can end up spreading it around. A new effort in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a neighborhood of Boston, aims to "cover-up" the problem in a way that benefits residents. From member station W-B-U-R, Toni Randolph explains.


CURWOOD: Lead poses a special danger to children, particularly those who have poor nutrition. One doesn't have to eat paint chips to get into trouble. Relatively tiny amounts of powdered lead paint from walls can be enough to poison a small child. Lead paint that's washed off the outside of a building can make the yard a dangerous place to play. Experts disagree on what's the safest method to clean up lead-contaminated soil. Attempts to remove it can end up spreading it around. Now, a new effort in Boston aims to cover up the problem in a way that benefits low-income residents. From member station WBUR, Toni Randolph explains.

(Children playing, shouting to each other)

RANDOLPH: Modest old single-family homes, some with paint-flaked walls, are squeezed into tiny lots in the inner-city Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. Family life spills out into the streets here. In front of one home, grease- covered guys work beneath the hood of a car. In front of another home, young men sit on the porch listening to music blasting from a car parked out front.

(Music blares)

RANDOLPH: This is a low-income community, but many people here own their own homes, And they take pride in their scattered flower boxes and gardens. What grass surrounds the homes tends to be beaten down and scraggly, but the urban yards here serve as playgrounds and meeting places, And the residents are working at giving them a new lease.

(Bumping sounds)

RANDOLPH: In front of one 2-story home, teenagers appear to be hauling dirt for a landscaping project. But they're not just trying to make the yard look better. Their goal is to bury the lead in the yard. In poorer neighborhoods in old cities like Boston, many of the houses haven't been maintained, And lead-laced dust from disintegrating paint flakes pollute the soil. Seventeen- year-old Taurin Swindle is working up a sweat.

(More bumping sounds)

RANDOLPH: He and his coworkers covered up the contaminated soil in this yard with weed cloth, a thin cloth with tiny holes that allows grass to grow through it but won't allow the contaminated soil to pass through. Then, Taurin Swindle says, he and his colleagues top the cloth with several inches of mulch.

SWINDLE: And the next step is, we're going to put stepping stones on it, which allows people to go in the back, And also give us a nice finished look.

RANDOLPH: Some of the highest levels of lead are found within 3 feet of the house, along what's known as the drip line. That's the area where rainwater runs off the house and can wash lead-based paint chips into the ground below. To cover up the lead within the drip line, the teenage workers create a long wooden border surrounding the house. They fill it with clean dirt and cover it with rocks or shrubs and plants. Protecting the soil amounts to protecting kids, says Tricia Tillman-Reardon, who supervises the teenage landscapers.

REARDON: So that when the kids play in it, they won't dig deep enough. They won't be able to get dirt under their fingernails or on their hands, because kids, you know, put a lot of stuff in their mouth. Their toys and their fingers and stuff. So, this way they'll just get mulch and not contaminated soil.

(Teens continue to work)

RANDOLPH: The teens are part of the Dorchester Safe Yard Program. It's a pilot project designed to reduce children's outdoor exposure to lead. It's sponsored by Dorchester's Bowdoin Street Health Center, the Boston University School of Public Health, And the US Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA gave the project partners a grant totaling nearly $300,000 to try out the low-tech approach. The group hopes to prove that it's more cost-effective to cover up lead-contaminated soil than to remove it. That traditional remediation method requires home owners to hire someone licensed to handle hazardous waste. Lead is extremely toxic, And when it's ingested it poses special problems for children and pregnant women. Roy Petrie of the Massachusetts Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, explains.

PETRIE: Children in particular are at risk of lead poisoning because their exposure occurs at a time when their brain is developing very rapidly. Lead is moving to the brain, where it can cause permanent brain damage. And the consequences are a loss of IQ, And of course this continues on a continuum depending on the length of exposure and the degree of exposure, to mental retardation.

(Children and birds in the background)

RANDOLPH: Community health worker Naomi Shelton goes door to door in the neighborhood to recruit home owner participants. She stops at a 2-family house where several children are playing in the front yard. When the home owner peeks her head out of the second-story window, Naomi Shelton makes her pitch.

SHELTON: Hi. We're from the Bowdoin Street Health Center. I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about our Dorchester Lead Safe Yard Program that we have going this summer, And into the fall.

RANDOLPH: Naomi Shelton is invited upstairs to meet home owner Brenda Rosario. She listens attentively and then eagerly signs up.

ROSARIO: I saw a paper, they brought me a paper, And I read it. But I haven't had, it's real surprising that I'm here today. I don't have the time (laughs), you know, I work all day, I work sometimes until 8 o'clock. And then when you come home, 3 kids, And you're busy. But I did read about it before.

RANDOLPH: If she's eligible, Brenda Rosario would receive about $750 in labor and materials for landscaping in her yard. But to qualify, her soil has to show elevated lead levels.

(Scraping sounds)

RANDOLPH: The EPA tests the yards of home owners who sign up for the Dorchester program. Wess Straub, an industrial hygienist with the Bowdoin Street Health Center, analyzes the data during on-site testing. He looks for levels greater than 400 parts per million, but he allows some leeway.

STRAUB: An area that has lead levels of 1,000 in the front yard here I might not be concerned about. A thousand where the kids are playing, I'm concerned about. So it's not only the levels but what's happening there, that we're interested in, too.

(Traffic sounds)

RANDOLPH: The lead levels at this house make it eligible for the Lead Safe Yard Program. The program is not a scientific study that documents a correlation between blood-lead levels and soil-lead levels, says Roy Petrie of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Program in Massachusetts, because it deals with only one source of lead.

PETRIE: But what it's going to do is document and demonstrate a relatively low-cost approach that hopefully can last several decades. And that can be measured in terms of checking on re-emergence or re-exposure of the leaded soil itself over time.

CHILD: Mommy, there's [inaudible].

WOMAN: Open that door.

(Bird calls)

RANDOLPH: Researchers and residents hope the program becomes a model for reducing the toxic threat of lead. Residents say the project is already helping preserve their quality of life. Jeannie Sheffield signed up to have her yard landscaped. She's especially motivated since several of her 23 grandchildren now live with her in her Dorchester home.

SHEFFIELD: I've been in this neighborhood 30 years, And all these children that were here, they come over here every days, And there's lead or anything around here I want it to be taken care of.

RANDOLPH: For Living on Earth, I'm Toni Randolph.



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