Lead Lab

New Orleans, LA – Community IMPACT Series: Lead Lab, Dec. 15, 2009

You can't see lead contamination in urban soils, but its impact on individuals and a community is indelible.

Dr. Howard Mielke is a research professor at the Tulane University and president of the nonprofit Lead Lab. He's been studying the issue for more than 30 years, and his early research on childhood lead poisoning in inner cities helped highlight the need to remove lead from gasoline. Here's Dr. Miekle:

"We now know the relationships between the amount of lead in the soil and blood lead, and it turns out blood lead triggers some very serious problems, learning problems for children. They have much more difficulty in just thinking clearly and getting things right, and as a result they start failing at school which just triggers more problems to the child. . .It's that kind of problem that is very subtle, but extraordinarily costly to our society."

Lead exposure is dangerous for anyone, but the way it interferes with the normal development of the nervous system - the way it manifests in learning and behavior problems -- makes it particularly devastating to children. Lead released through tailpipes during the six decades when U.S. oil companies added the metal to their gasoline is the major culprit for today's lead contamination in urban soils. And hand-to-mouth activity after youngsters touch or crawl on such soils is one common way they can become dangerously exposed.

That's why Lead Lab is working to improve lead safety in areas where children spend a great deal of time: childcare centers. To alleviate risks at these sites, Lead Lab uses a covering process that begins by laying a water-permeable cloth barrier over outdoor play areas, then topping that with six inches of clean soil. Lead Lab recently completed this work at 11 inner city childcare centers in a program supported by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

Lead contamination is an issue in most major American cities, and New Orleans is no different. However, New Orleans does have a unique resource at its disposal, a resource that supplies the key, raw materials for Lead Lab's recent programs. Dr. Mielke explains:

"The Mississippi River is bringing some of the best soil in the world right by our doorstep at a rate of 300 tons per minute on the average, and it's a phenomenal material."

This voluminous stream of soil, carried from Midwest farmlands as river sediment, is collected from the Bonne Carre spillway just upriver from the city. It's the same material local builders frequently use as fill, and it has a miniscule and very safe lead level, about one-one hundredth of the toxic levels Lead Lab has been finding in some local sites. That's the material Lead Lab used at the childcare centers. And it's the same accessible, inexpensive material Dr. Mielke hopes can be tapped to much greater extent by other businesses, residents and groups of neighbors to cover more contaminated soils.

Further, Tina Covington, Dr. Mielke's wife and colleague at Lead Lab, is developing a prevention-based education program to help expand the reach of their efforts.

"We're trying to teach the parents about providing cleaner areas for the children to play outside the home . . .it's a fairly broad-based type of education, looking at the things that really can be done, cleaning floors to washing hands to eating better foods, they're all part of improving the health of children and improving the possibility that they won't get lead poisoning."

Learn more about Lead Lab at wwno.org. For WWNO, I'm Ian McNulty.