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Defender Picks


Getting the Lead Out

The Vocal Citizens Behind the Closure - and Cleanup - of a Contaminated Bywater Park

Between the time Laura Grenda's son began playing at Bywater's Mickey Markey Park when he was six months old and last month's closure of the park to remediate the "off the charts" levels of lead in the soil, all that changed was public awareness about the toxins.


Whether citizens or city officials noticed, the toxins were always there.

In fact, they still are. The park has reopened, with the lead pushed down and covered. To remediate the playground, crews put a level of "geotextile" over the contaminated soil to contain the hazardous materials. The covering seals the lead in, rather than mixing it into the air, or forcing the painstaking process of the removal of every last bit. That layer was then covered with six inches of uncontaminated soil from the Bonnet Carre' Spillway.

        "The stars were aligned," said Howard Mielke, a Tulane University bioenvironmental research professor who has long documented lead levels in the soil around New Orleans.

After countless papers and a spate of headline-grabbing reports in local
media outlets over the years, Mielke is finally seeing his decades of
soil testing garner the attention he's always been claiming it deserves.

"These are places where children play, that we think of as safe."

Through the course of his work, Mielke has found New Orleans suffers an
average lead level far higher than the national level, and that it correlates geographically with New Orleans' equally off-the-charts violent crime rate. By his current estimation, at least 37 parks and playgrounds alone currently have lead levels far above what would be considered safe for children.




Protect Children from Lead Exposure

· Cover play areas with a blanket.

· Always wash hands very well before eating, and constant reminders not to put dirty hands into mouths.

· Carefully cleanhouse, especially areas that are prone to friction, like window and door frames.

Get children tested for lead It's a simple finger prick that pediatricians are supposed to perform routinely, and do not. 

· Play mentally stimulating games with your children to help develop good cognition. 



Lead is especially dangerous for young children because it interferes with their development.  Plus, kids are more likely to ingest the toxins because they don't know any better. Mielke's shouts from the rooftops have been a constant. What made the difference in this case was the involvement of NOLA Unleaded, a recently formed community group seeking to raise awareness about the lead issue. Grenda became aware of the lead issue when her son was six months old, and her landlord sanded her house despite her request that he wait until after her upcoming move, and despite the City ordinance that forbids sanding houses.


"I'm retraumatized every time I see someone sand," she said.


The level of lead in her son's bloodstream (measured in micrograms per deciLeter, or ìg/dL) went up. When she moved, she saw it drop. But upon her family's return to the Marigny, the lead returned, too. And despite Grenda taking precautions to keep dust and loose paint chips from dispersing in the air, the high lead levels came back - and they were even worse than before.


Andi Young's family went through a similar situation. Her child's lead level was initially not reported to her, because it was below 10--the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standard for 'poisoned.' However, children can suffer negative effects at lead levels as low as two. When Young probed, she learned her child's level was 9.9. Her house was remediated, but the lead levels continued to rise. After that, Young attended a meeting of the fledgling organization, where Mielke was present.


"It has to be Markey Park," she said, since that was the only other place her tiny son spent much time.


Other mothers agreed. Their young children weren't in preschool, and they weren't anywhere unsupervised. It was home, or the park - and they knew it wasn't home. Lead in soil comes from two places. The first is loose paint, sanded off houses. Though lead was banned from paint in 1977, New Orleans' older housing stock means a lot of lead is still present in many houses. When paint flakes off the house, it is at its most hazardous. Despite the existing ban on sanding, the group has found it continues to happen in spades.


"The ordinance is unenforceable," Grenda said. "It's supposed to be under Safety and Permits, but you can't get anyone there to answer the phone...The police won't do anything because it's not in their jurisdiction."


A safety inspector said city government lacks resources to enforce the ordinance. "We simply don't have enough personnel," said Inspector Graham of the Department of Safety and Permits. "We do what we can." He encourages citizens to keep calling and trying if they 're in Grenda's situation.


Despite the prevalence of sanding, the main culprit for lead contamination remains vehicles. During the Industrial Revolution, the dangers of lead were well-known. France banned it from paint in 1840. But when General Motors started adding lead to gasoline in 1923, they called it "ethyl." When gasoline leaks out of vehicles, the runoff goes somewhere. Likewise, wheel weights on cars are made of lead. They fall off easily, get ground down, and are distributed. Lead wheel weights are banned in other countries, but the EPA is only now working on a ban.


The EPA standard for the acceptable amount of lead in soil is 400 parts per million (ppm). However, California's standard is 80 ppm. Denmark's is 40 ppm. Mielke, who was at the table when the standard was decided (along with lawyers and researchers from corporations with lead interests), assures that 400 ppm is really no standard at all. Anything above 40 ppm will cause poisoning, he said.


Taking Action

In response to the growing concern in Bywater, NOLA Unleaded took action. They knew their best chance was to educate parents. Claudia Copeland, another member, made a flier to post around the park. As the flier passed between members, it dispersed both physically and on the Internet. Soon, it reached City Hall, and without even getting word from the administration, the park was locked. The community was conflicted. On one hand, they were genuinely appreciative that the City acted so quickly. Specifically, Copeland credits Charles Allen of Coastal and Environmental Affairs and Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer. They're thrilled that their voices were heard. On the other hand, they felt the City hadn't communicated that their park was closed temporarily for remediation. People thought their children would be forced to play in backyards that are often more contaminated than parks.


Plants that were contributed by community members as a memorial for a deceased child, were dug up. Young caught that as it happened, and when she approached the workmen about it, they were apologetic and kind. They put the plants in pots, to be replanted later.


"It's hanging in the balance," she said, upset, but trying to see both sides. NOLA Unleaded's next step is to get the process repeated in other parks, without causing permanent closures in areas with less empowered citizens--a factor they believe is crucial. They feel that the swiftness of the City's response is due to their speaking out, and their proof that Markey Park was to blame for the elevated levels in their children. Members of NOLA Unleaded, along with Mielke, believe that solving our lead problem will help solve problems like failing schools and violent crime. Some theorize that our general population has some level of poisoning, affecting the very functioning of our city.


"You don't see the symptoms," said Copeland, "It's silent. [Children] just never reach their full potential." Copeland, who holds a PhD in biochemistry, believes that the federal standard is too high. "To me, anything even as high as five is unacceptable."


Grenda thinks the problem is in citizens' hands.

"We're creating our own problems," she said. Her son takes "a full regiment of medication just to stay normal...And I know it's from the lead."

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