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Danger in the ground: Lead contaminates westside Atlanta neighborhood

By weirjeremy | Jan 2, 2020

Rosario Hernandez regularly gardens with her grandchildren at her two Atlanta properties in the English Avenue district, about a mile from Mercedes-Benz Stadium.


So Hernandez, who works with Historic Westside Gardens, was alarmed when an Emory University team analyzed the soil in July 2018 and discovered it contained unsafe concentrations of lead — a potent neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to children.

The next month, a community member at a local tomato festival delivered a piece of a rock-like material from the area to Emory professor Eri Saikawa and an official with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. They tested it on the spot, using a hand-held X-ray Fluorescence device, which resembles a ray gun from a science fiction film.

Like the samples from Hernandez’s yards, the material also exceeded the EPA’s lead threshold.

“That’s when we realized it was a really big issue,” said Saikawa.

The Emory findings led to an investigation by the EPA, which has since expanded the area of potential contamination to 368 properties, covering roughly 35 city blocks. The agency said it has results from soil sampling 124 of them. More than half, 64, have at least one area with elevated levels of lead in the soil.

“We’re still in the sampling phase,’’ said Terrence Byrd, federal on-scene coordinator for the EPA. But he added, “We do have enough information to say removal is warranted.’’

Saikawa and community members are urging residents to test children for lead poisoning, but have encountered some mistrust. There apparently has been no separate, systematic effort by local or state health officials to test children in the mostly poor, largely African-American community for lead exposure, Georgia Health News found.

Rosario Hernandez’s granddaughters Aryanna Maymi Booker (from left), 11, Ava Booker, 5, and Aniyah Royal, 9, stand on the vacant lot next to her home where they played and gardened near Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Nov. 25, 2019, in Atlanta. Hernandez discovered slag, a byproduct of smelting, on the property. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Georgia Health News

Growing food is popular in the west Atlanta area, with 160 families in the area having personal gardens, said Historic Westside Gardens Executive Director Gil Frank. He helped the Emory team, led by Saikawa and doctoral student Sam Peters, secure the soil testing grant from the Emory HERCULES Exposome Research Center.

“I was interested in what is the health risk to the gardens and the children there,’’ Frank said. “Nobody was looking at possible contamination.’’

Lead contamination in soil has popped up as a health hazard in communities across the United States, the unseen residue of smelters and other industrial processes but also a product of lead paint and vehicle exhaust from the era of leaded gasoline.

On Atlanta’s westside, Emory and EPA researchers speculate that homes were built on top of slag, a byproduct of smelting, spread from nearby foundries and used to fill in low-lying areas.

A recent visit by a reporter revealed chunks of slag lay in an empty lot across the street from Hernandez’s property on Elm Street. Other pieces were scattered on the lot next to her home.

“I didn’t even know what slag was,’’ said Hernandez.

Rosario Hernandez shows off some of the chunks of slag, a byproduce of smelting, that she has found on the vacant lot next to her home near Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Georgia Health News

Although EPA is still sampling, the agency has officially designated the westside area as a “Superfund removal action,” a separate classification from a Superfund site.

Georgia Health News learned details of the EPA’s removal plans from a memo prepared by the state Environmental Protection Division, obtained under an open records request.

Removal actions costs are capped at $2 million over 12 months, according to the state memo. That could include excavating soils and slag until the lead readings fall below the EPA limits. The EPA would then restore the removal sites to their original condition.

The funding may cover the cleanup of the currently identified properties, but more money may be needed to decontaminate the entire neighborhood, according to the state memo. If the area is designated a Superfund site, more federal dollars would be available.

EPA is prioritizing homes that have children under age 6 or pregnant women, the state memo said.

Because it’s difficult to determine the source of the slag, the records stated, “EPA does not anticipate identifying any responsible parties.’’

The EPA said Wednesday that it plans to begin decontaminating properties in the first quarter of next year.

Toxic to children

Lead is especially dangerous to children, who can absorb as much as 90% more lead into their bodies than adults. Researchers have found that even at low levels, lead can damage a child’s brain, lowering intelligence and damaging the ability to control their behavior and attention. At higher levels, lead can affect growth, and it can replace iron in the blood, leading to anemia and fatigue.

There is no safe level of lead exposure, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

In adults, lead poisoning can cause an increased risk of high blood pressure and damage the nerves and kidneys. It also can cause miscarriages.

Lead poisoning can come from several sources, including water, paint, even certain toys and imported candy.

The EPA’s threshold for unsafe lead contamination in soil is 400 parts per million, though one expert told Georgia Health News that even a reading of 75 parts per million should raise concern in areas where kids play.

“Kids are always sticking their hands (in dirt) and toys in their mouth,’’ said Jay Lessl, program coordinator for the Soil, Plant, and Water Laboratory at the University of Georgia.

Rosario Hernandez rounds up chunks of slag, a byproduct of smelting, on the vacant lot next to her home near Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Nov. 25, 2019, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Georgia Health News

On one of Hernandez’s properties, the lead results were 560 parts per million in the front yard and 690 parts per million in the back — each significantly greater than the EPA’s threshold of 400 parts per million. Next door, where Hernandez’s grandchildren have lived, the results were also elevated, including a reading of 520 parts per million in the playground area.

In an empty lot across the street from Hernandez, the Emory team got a reading of more than 2,000 parts per million — five times the EPA’s threshold for remediation and removal. And the EPA said it has found levels as high as 3,400 parts per million.

Many kids not tested

The EPA investigation has targeted properties between Joseph E. Boone Boulevard on the south, Cameron Alexander Boulevard on the north, James P. Brawley Drive on the west, and an old CSX rail line on the east. The surrounding area is home to about 3,700 people, more than 40% of whom live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data.

Several houses there are boarded up alongside streets with uneven, pocked pavement. Other homes have flowers and gardens. The agency’s Superfund and Emergency Management Division, which includes the emergency response program, is overseeing the investigation.

The EPA did not publicize the contamination through a press release.

The area on Atlanta’s westside where officials have discovered lead contaminated soil covers roughly 35 blocks, a mile northwest of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. JENNIFER PEEBLES / AJC
Photo: Georgia Health News

In March and July, the agency sent informational letters and fact sheets to residents, homeowners, property and business owners, and staff have gone door-to-door to seek access agreements to conduct soil sampling at selected properties. The agency also has notified state environmental regulators.

“EPA recommends you limit your direct exposure to the soil in your yard, make sure you and your family wash your hands and toys after playing in the yard, and remove shoes before entering the residence,’’ said an EPA letter to Hernandez this year, in announcing the results of testing on her properties.

Hernandez, concerned about her grandchildren’s health, is getting them tested for lead levels, and is urging neighbors to get their kids tested, too.

Neither Saikawa nor Hernandez say they know of children whose blood has shown high levels of lead.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found historical evidence of lead poisoning in children in the Elm Street zip code, where Hernandez and her grandchildren live, and in the zip code next to it in Georgia Department of Health data obtained by the Georgia News Lab. The state collects lead test results from children covered by Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, and from kids who have been tested outside that program.

In 2005, the data show, 11.7% of children tested for lead exposure in Hernandez’s zip code had high levels of the heavy metal, and 7.8% of children tested in the adjacent zip code had high levels. By 2012, the percentage of children with a high concentration of lead had dropped to 3.9% in Hernandez’s zip code, and to 2.8% in the one next to it. No children tested in Hernandez’s zip code were found with elevated blood lead levels from 2013 through 2018, according to the state’s data, but some children from the adjacent zip code showed elevated levels in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

“Most of the people I have talked to said they have not had their kids tested,’’ Saikawa said. “I was told there was fear in doing that.”

Saikawa, noting this reluctance, has asked families if she can take toenail samples from their children to check for contamination. She says she has permission from parents of 10 children, and is working to get the consent for more kids to be tested.

Aerial photography shows the area where a team of Emory researchers and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have found high levels of lead contamination in the soil near Mercedes Benz stadium on Nov. 27, 2019. More than 60 homes have tested for lead levels beyond what the EPA considers safe, and many more could be affected. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Georgia Health News

EPA: ‘We really need help’

Byrd, the EPA official, said the agency is having difficulty contacting or getting permission to take soil samples on the remaining 200-plus properties in the neighborhood. More than 83% of residents rent, according to census data. Many homes are owned by out-of-state corporations, Byrd said.

“We really need help from the public with access,’’ Byrd said. If a property has elevated levels of lead, “We will clean it up at no cost to them.’’

Lessl, the UGA soil expert, says the cost of scraping off the soil, removing it, and bringing in new topsoil is very expensive.

He said excavation costs would vary, but for an average-sized home it could range between $8,000 to $12,000 to remove and dispose of contaminated soil, add back fill with uncontaminated topsoil and regrade the property.

State Rep. Mable Thomas, D-Atlanta, who represents the westside area in the state Legislature, said the community’s feelings are mixed about the EPA activity.

“Some people are happy to go along with remediation,’’ Thomas said. “Other people say to me that they believe this is another effort to push residents out of the westside.’’

“If there has to be remediation, the people should be made whole,’’ she added. “Low-wealth, working-class neighborhoods have a right to have a voice in their own community.’’

Aerial photography shows the area where a team of Emory researchers and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have found high levels of lead contamination in the soil near Mercedes Benz stadium on Nov. 27, 2019. More than 60 homes have tested for lead levels beyond what the EPA considers safe, and many more could be affected. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Georgia Health News

And the children there should be tested for high lead levels, Thomas said. “It would be a good thing to check out.’’

Residents of nearby neighborhoods told Georgia Health News about the history of slag being used as a “fill’’ material.

“If you look at most dumps, they are in minority neighborhoods,’’ said Colette Haywood, who lives on Foundry Street.

She and another resident, Annie Moore, said they want the EPA to widen their soil sampling territory.

“I would like them to test my area,’’ Moore said.

She has a big chunk of slag in her yard, she added.

Georgia News Lab Deputy Editor Laura Corley and AJC data specialists John Perry and Jennifer Peebles contributed to this reporting. Email Andy Miller at amiller@georgiahealthnews.com.

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K-12 EDUCATION: School Districts’ Efforts to Address Lead-Based Paint

By weirjeremy | Jul 31, 2019

The most common source of lead exposure for children comes from paint in buildings built before 1978—the year the government banned the sale of lead-based paint. In schools, lead dust can come from disturbing lead paint during renovations, deteriorating lead paint, and lead-contaminated soil.

We surveyed schools across the U.S. on how they deal with lead paint. Among other things, we found

About a third of public school students, about 15.3 million, were in school districts that inspected for lead paint

About half the districts that inspected found lead paint. All that found it reported plans or actions to reduce or eliminate it

What GAO Found

An estimated 12 percent of school districts inspected their schools for lead-based paint in school year 2016-2017, while about three-quarters of school districts had not inspected their schools for lead-based paint during that period, according to GAO’s generalizable school district survey. About half of the school districts that inspected found lead-based paint. All school districts that found lead-based paint in their schools reported taking action to reduce or eliminate it or had plans to do so.

An estimated 15.3 million students were in districts that inspected for lead-based paint compared with 22.4 million students in districts that had not inspected.

A higher percentage of the largest school districts inspected their schools for lead-based paint than other school districts. Specifically, according to GAO’s survey, an estimated 63 percent of the 100 largest school districts inspected their schools for lead-based paint compared with 12 percent of all other school districts. Also, a higher percentage of the largest school districts found lead-based paint in their schools than other school districts. Specifically, 51 percent of the 100 largest school districts found lead-based paint compared with an estimated 8 percent of other school districts.

Estimates generated from GAO’s survey results are generalizable to the 70 percent of school districts nationwide with at least one school built before 1978 and which obtained drinking water from a public water system (the focus of GAO’s July 2018 report).

Why GAO Did This Study

Recent revelations of lead exposure—in Flint, Michigan through drinking water and in East Chicago, Indiana through contaminated soil and lead dust from past industrial activities—have renewed public awareness about the dangers lead exposure poses to public health, including the health of school-age children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even though the extent to which children are exposed to lead has been substantially reduced since the 1970s, it is unclear how many school buildings still have lead-based paint.

GAO was asked to study inspection and remediation efforts that protect children from exposure to lead in schools. In July 2018, GAO reported on lead in school drinking water. In this report, GAO describes the extent to which school districts reported inspecting for, and remediating, lead-based paint in schools.

To do this, GAO used survey and interview data collected as part of its July 2018 work on lead in school drinking water. For that work, GAO surveyed 549 randomly selected school districts from July to October 2017 asking whether they had inspected for, discovered, or remediated lead-based paint in the past 12 months. GAO also visited or interviewed officials in 17 school districts from February to October 2017. These districts were located in five states—Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas—and were selected because they vary in population density, geographic location, and the extent to which they required school-based lead testing and remediation with respect to drinking water (the focus of GAO’s July 2018 report). GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance.

For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (202) 512-7215 or nowickij@gao.gov.

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The Dangers of Lead for Your Child — And Its Many Sources

By weirjeremy | Feb 11, 2019

If you and your family live in an older home, your children might be at risk for lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is a serious condition that can irreversibly damage your child’s nervous system, brain and other organs. In addition to health problems, elevated levels of lead have been shown to cause learning disabilities and behavior problems that affect a child’s ability to pay attention.

Lead is a poisonous metal that is especially dangerous to babies and young children. It is most often found in lead-based paint, in dust that forms when lead-based paint is scraped, sanded or worn down through use, and in soil that becomes contaminated with peeling, lead-based paint. Children living in homes built before 1978 or older homes undergoing renovation are at a higher risk for lead exposure due to lead-contaminated house dust and soil.

Lead also is found in:

  • Water.
  • Leaded crystal glassware.
  • Lead-glazed pottery and ceramic ware.
  • Some hobby equipment.
  • Cosmetics, such as kohl.
  • Home remedies such as greta, a Mexican folk remedy taken commonly for stomachache or intestinal illness and azarcon, a folk remedy that usually contains substantial amounts of lead.
  • Painted toys and furniture, especially if they are older.

Lead paint gets into children’s systems when they:

  • Eat or handle peeling paint chips and flakes that contain lead.
  • Put their hands, toys and other items covered with lead dust in their mouths.
  • Breathe lead dust.
  • Chew on windowsills, furniture and door frames and other items covered with lead-based paint.
  • Drink water from older water pipes made from lead.

Many factors can affect how much lead is absorbed, but inhaled lead is more likely to be absorbed than ingested lead. Lead attaches to red blood cells, then moves into the soft tissues, such as the liver and lungs. If lead is absorbed into your bones, it can stay there for decades and recirculate in your blood if a bone is broken.

Unfortunately, most cases of lead poisoning have no symptoms, says pediatrician Maria Tang, MD.

Prevention and screening

Every child should be screened for lead exposure at ages 1 and 2. This is based on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Lead poisoning continues to be one of the most preventable public health problems,” Dr. Tang says. The banning of leaded gas in 1986 and lead-based paints in 1978 have contributed to the dramatic decrease in children’s lead blood levels over the past four decades, she says.

But all children who are at risk for lead exposure or live in a high-risk zip code area should still get tested for lead, Dr. Tang says. Pregnant women also should seek the screening, she says.

Your doctor can order a blood test or it can be performed at your local health department. Children who are covered by Medicaid are eligible for free blood screening and are required by many states’ laws to get one.

“If your child’s blood-lead levels are too high, your doctor can start medical treatment to remove the lead,” Dr. Tang says. “ If not treated, elevated levels of lead have been shown to affect a child’s academic achievement.”

How to reduce lead exposure 

  • Make sure that your child eats healthy foods that are high in iron, calcium and vitamin C, which help protect against lead poisoning.
  • If you live in a house or apartment built before 1978, talk to your state or local health department about having your home’s paint and dust tested for lead. Call 1.800.424.LEAD for more information.
  • If you rent your home, talk to your landlord about peeling and flaking paint. Call the health department if the paint is not safely repaired.
  • Frequently wash your child’s hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys.
  • Always wash your hands before eating.
  • Always wipe your feet before entering the house.
  • Wipe floors and other surfaces with a damp mop or cloth on a regular basis.
  • Let tap water run for one minute before using.
  • Use only cold tap water for drinking, cooking and for making baby formula because hot tap water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead.
  • Don’t try to remove lead-based paint yourself.
  • Avoid any home remedies that contain lead.

If you’re pregnant, make sure to avoid exposure to lead, since you can pass it along to your unborn child.

For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Controlwebsite.

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U.S. senators demand answers from Army after Reuters report on lead poisoning

By weirjeremy | Aug 20, 2018

(Reuters) – Four U.S. senators on Friday urged the Army to detail the steps it is taking to safeguard children from lead poisoning, citing a Reuters investigation into hazards on military bases.

“We write to you today concerned about recent reports of lead poisoning at a number of Army installations,” the senators wrote. “The health and safety of our servicemembers and their families are of the utmost importance.”

The letter, written by Democratic Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, along with Republican Senators David Perdue and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, came a day after Reuters reported that more than 1,000 young children tested at military clinics had elevated lead levels between 2011 and 2016.

The Reuters investigation also found that several military bases had not been reporting children’s blood test results to state health departments, violating state laws and creating public health blind spots. The Army said those test results are now being reported.

The lawmakers requested a detailed briefing on the Army’s strategy to keep military families safe and proposals for potential action from Congress.

“The Army’s most valuable asset is its soldiers and their families, and we honor the sacrifices they make to serve our nation,” said Army spokeswoman Colonel Kathleen Turner.

“We are committed to providing a safe and secure environment on all of our installations, and to providing the highest quality of care to our service members, their families and all those entrusted to our care.”

As part of its examination, Reuters provided lead testing to families at several U.S. bases, finding lead paint hazards in Georgia, Texas, Kentucky and New York.

Senators Perdue and Isakson represent Georgia, where Reuters tested five older homes at Fort Benning and found hazards in all five. Senators Kaine and Warner represent Virginia, where a 2015 Defense Department’s Inspector General report had discovered lead hazards at Fort Belvoir.

“We ask that you provide our offices with a detailed briefing as soon as possible outlining the immediate and long-term mitigation strategy to keep military families safe, provide medical treatment for those potentially or previously affected, make long-lasting repairs, and finally, provide legislative proposals or guidance on legislation needed to hold maintenance contractors accountable,” the senators concluded in their letter.

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HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines Will Pay Fine Over Lead Paint Violations

By weirjeremy | Jul 20, 2018

By Sandra E. Garcia

June 7, 2018

Chip and Joanna Gaines, the stars of the HGTV television show “Fixer Upper,” have settled with the United States Environmental Protection Agency over allegations that they violated rules for the safe handling of lead paint during home renovations.

The Gaineses have agreed to pay the E.P.A. a civil fine of $40,000 and to inform their audience about the dangers of lead-based paint. Under the agreement, they will also take steps to ensure that their home renovation company, Magnolia Homes, is in compliance with E.P.A. regulations, the agency said.

“Through this settlement, Magnolia is putting in place safeguards to ensure the safety of its renovation work and making meaningful contributions toward the protection of children and vulnerable communities from exposure to lead-based paint,” Susan Bodine, the assistant administrator in the E.P.A.’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said in a statement.

Magnolia Homes was contacted by the E.P.A. three years ago and “took immediate steps to bring its activities into compliance,” John Marsicano, a spokesman for the company, said in a statement.

As part of the settlement, Magnolia Homes will also spend $160,000 in Waco, Tex., where the company was founded, to decrease lead-based paint hazards in homes where residents are at high risks for exposure to dust from such paint, according to the E.P.A.

In “Fixer Upper,” the Gaineses make over newly purchased homes. During an hourlong episode, they demolish parts of the house, renovate it and reveal it to the homeowners.

The Gaineses have used the final season of their show to talk about the dangers of having lead-based paint in homes. In one episode, Mr. Gaines discusses testing an old home for lead-based paints and talks about the E.P.A.’s lead renovation, repair and painting rule, known as the R.R.P. rule. The couple is also producing an online video about renovating homes that have lead-based paint.

The E.P.A. banned the use of lead-based paint in homes in 1978, but homes built before that year probably still have such paint, making safety during home renovations a top priority of the agency.

The R.R.P. rule requires that companies renovating homes and schools built before 1978 are certified by the E.P.A. and “follow lead-safe work practices to contain dust in the renovation work area and contain the waste during its disposal,” according to the agency.

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