Wednesday, June 28, 2017

After Laying Dormant For Decades, Poisonous Lead Hazards Make Big Comeback In Philly's Old Industrial Neighborhoods As Booming Residential Construction Churns Up Toxic Soil, Spreading Noxious Dust Across Gentrifying Neighborhoods

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: the Philadelphia Inquirer & the Philadelphis Daily News report:
  • Her Kensington neighborhood is full of charm. Swank cafes with rustic wood and vintage lighting. Stoops and decks with skyline views. Young parents who bond at parks while their children play.

    Jana Curtis, a mother of three, finds excitement in this urban renaissance.

    But with it comes a sad reality.

    Her daughter was poisoned by lead. The culprit wasn’t paint. Or tap water. But soil — in her own backyard.

    The yard was poisoning my daughter,” Curtis said. “It’s just so horrifying.”

    Curtis and her family live in the heart of what was once Philadelphia’s industrial hub. For most of the last century, the “river ward” neighborhoods of Fishtown, Kensington, and Port Richmond, which snake along the Delaware, were blanketed with hulking factories and lead smelters. It was a time when manufacturers used lead in everything from paints to plastics. Lunch-pail laborers walked to work from tightly packed row homes as lead dust spewed from smokestacks, coating sidewalks, stoops, and yards.

    Once in the soil, the heavy metal stays indefinitely. Even minuscule amounts can permanently lower a child’s IQ and cause behavioral problems.

    At one time, Philadelphia had 36 lead smelters — more than any other city in America. Fourteen alone operated in these river wards.

    The lead plants are long gone, either razed or shuttered. But their toxic legacy remains.

    Today a development boom is disturbing lead that has sat dormant for decades. Construction crews — unchecked by government — churn up poisonous soil that can spread toxic dust across these gentrifying neighborhoods. This renaissance puts a new generation of children at risk.

    In the area’s most sweeping environmental investigation to date, the Inquirer and Daily News tested exposed soil in 114 locations in the river wards — parks, playgrounds, yards. Nearly three out of four had hazardous levels of lead contamination — a problem of previously unknown severity.

    In addition, reporters discovered high levels of lead dust on rowhouse stoops and sidewalks near construction sites. In tests taken from a popular neighborhood playground — both before and after digging began at a vacant lot across the street — a once-safe play area was shown to contain lead dust.

    Developers are not required to test soil for lead as a routine precaution before disturbing land. Further, no single governmental agency is responsible for making certain a yard’s soil is safe.

    Federal, state, and city officials, who have known about lead in the soil here for decades, quibble over who, if anyone, should regulate development within a former industrial area. State and federal officials say they only oversee development and cleanup within the boundaries of known contaminated sites. City officials say they don’t regulate soil.

    The city’s Department of Public Health is supposed to enforce a regulation that requires construction crews to contain noxious dust. Reporters spent five months in these neighborhoods, testing soil, interviewing residents, and keeping tabs on at least two dozen ongoing construction sites. Not once did they see workers take dust-control measures, even something as simple as spraying water to hold down dust.
    Earlier this year, a reporter took a dust-wipe sample from the playground and found no detectable levels of lead.

    About three months later, in early May, a reporter took another sample from the same spot. At the time, construction workers were using backhoes to dig foundations for new homes going up across the street. Dust and dirt were swirling around as children were busy at play.

    This sample shot up to 127.4 micrograms of lead in dust per square foot. While there is no federal hazard level for outdoor surfaces, the limit for entryways and indoor floors is 10 and 40 for porches.

    Whether the lead came from a construction site across the street is uncertain.

    When construction manager Justin Kaplan was told that tests revealed high lead levels on playground surfaces, including where children had scrawled chalk drawings, he said he felt sick.

    “I have kids,” Kaplan said, his voice anguished. “I don’t want my kids rolling around in lead dust while they are chalk-drawing — believe me.”

    After his crews unearthed old storage tanks during excavation, they had to stop and have the soil tested, he said. It came back high for lead, he said.

For more, see In booming Philadelphia neighborhoods, lead-poisoned soil is resurfacing (Breakneck construction has unearthed a toxic legacy, coating playgrounds and backyards with dangerous levels of lead dust).

See generally, Toxic City: The Ongoing Struggle To Protect Philadelphia's Children From Environmental Harm. foundry smelter epa environmental protection agency lead contamination