Lead-Contaminated Soil Does More Than Poison Residents

by James Gastner and Veronica Gaitán

Even low blood lead levels, often caused by ingesting in-home contaminants such as lead-based paint and dust, can create serious short- and long-term health problems for children and adults. Lead exposure can result in impaired executive functions, such as the ability to plan, and other potential long-term behavior and learning difficulties because of the toxin’s negative effects on brain development. Given these negative effects on health, it is essential to understand sources of lead, including sources outside the home.

Do lead poisoning threats extend beyond the home?

While lead-based paint in the home is a well-known threat, lead risks are found in other sources in or near the home. High concentrations of lead in soil from sources including nearby industrial activities, past uses of the site, and lead paint that chips off a home’s exterior can poison residents. Children can ingest toxic soil or be exposed through soil tracked into their homes.

The long-standing problem of childhood lead poisoning has been thrust into the national spotlight with the crises in Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago, Indiana. In light of the renewed conversation and debate surrounding this issue, the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, recently released a report that documents interior and exterior lead contaminants and how they affect children’s health. The report’s modeling estimates that if blood lead levels of children born in 2018 were kept at zero, $84 billion in societal benefits would be realized. The report analyzes current policies for their impacts on public health and recommends actions to reduce childhood lead exposure.

Among the report’s recommendations, which include policies to replace lead service lines that provide drinking water, remove lead-paint hazards in older homes, and enforce lead-safe practices for home repairs, the report highlights the need to prevent and treat contaminated soil. Every day, more lead is introduced into the environment. Lead emitted into the air ends up in the top layer of soil. The report found that many communities have contaminated soil, but because many businesses that created the hazards have long since closed, there is a need for low-cost solution to addressing the hazards. Several strategies for low-cost treatments have been implemented in New Orleans at schools and child care facilities and show great promise. The report also highlights the need for enforcing current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, providing more targeted evidence-based educational interventions to the 1.8 million children who have a history of lead exposure, and cooperation across all levels of government, as well as public and private investment.

Achieving lead-safe housing and safe yards can prevent the need for emergency remediation efforts that disrupt lives, contribute to housing instability, and compound the effects of environmental hazards on residents.

Closing the West Calumet Housing Complex

In 2016, the lives of residents of the West Calumet Complex in East Chicago, Indiana, were uprooted. East Chicago’s mayor ordered the evacuation of the public housing complex, which had been built on the site of two former lead manufacturers and downwind of a USS Lead refinery, after soil tests conducted by the EPA from 2014 to 2016 revealed that soil in some areas of the complex had lead levels as high as 91,000 parts per million of lead in the soil (the EPA’s threshold for a cleanup is 400 parts per million).

The 332 families living in the complex were issued Tenant Protection Vouchers to help relocate to a safe home, but the vouchers were not a magic bullet. Many remained in the complex beyond the target date officials set for evacuation, in part because of the limited rental units available in East Chicago and some landlords’ refusal to accept government vouchers. Many residents had to move across state lines, which would cause loss of jobs and Medicaid coverage and force students to switch schools late in the year.

In addition to being exposed to toxic levels of lead, residents experienced the traumatic effects of forced moves, a concept explored by Matthew Desmond and Carl Gershenson. They found that forced moves create “double precarity” for residents—housing and job instability. Low-income workers undergoing forced moves, such as those in West Calumet, are more likely to lose their jobs than those with stable housing. The conditions of West Calumet residents with mental and physical health problems worsen because of the stress of the move, similar to conditions of residents forced from Chicago’s public housing because of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation.

Housing programs that require families to relocate can create problematic readjustment periods for children, and in general, frequent or forced moves negatively affect children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and behavioral development. The prospect of multiple moves also creates anxiety for parents and can lead to depression. Research proves that churning and displacement can negatively affect the entire family.

What happens when a family is not uprooted suddenly but still can’t go outside?

Similar to residents of the West Calumet complex, Ebony, a resident of Tempe, Arizona, received a Housing Choice Voucher—also known as a Section 8 voucher—but the only unit she could find came with a warning from her landlord. “If the children go outside, don’t let them eat the dirt,” he cautioned when she arrived to sign the lease. Despite Tempe’s housing inspector completing a 19-page checklist for the apartment, the soil remained untested.

Ebony’s children and those in West Calumet can’t play outside. Outdoor play, which many families take for granted, produces significant health benefits for children, including developing strong immune systems, lowering stress levels, and increasing fitness.

Preventing lead contamination is key

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the EPA have begun addressing factors that led to the problems at West Calumet. They have mandated soil tests of all HUD-assisted and public units near Superfund sites, and HUD has reduced the threshold for elevated blood levels in children living in public housing (a positive step, but one that only forces action after poisoning has occurred). But these are only the first steps in addressing lead-contaminated soil. Future actions could include the following:

Despite recent threats to federal lead poisoning prevention programs, HUD and other agencies need to address the problems that stem from lead-contaminated soil. The benefits of preventing lead poisoning go beyond those related to health. When all homes are free of lead—inside and out—families avoid unnecessary displacement and the ensuing disruption to their lives, social networks, education, and productivity.