By Liz Goodiel

Across the country, there has been a growing awareness for communities affected by water and soil samples contaminated with hazardous substances, including lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxin, arsenic, and more. The presence of such dangerous chemicals have disrupted the lives of residents, children and susceptible individuals that come involuntarily into contact with them on a daily basis. The concern comes when communities operate as normal with no knowledge of what could potentially be sitting below the surface.

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In 2018, a community on the western side of Atlanta discovered unhealthy levels of lead in their soil. The contamination was discovered when Emory University’s PhD student Sam Peters, conducted an investigation on the presence of heavy metals in the soil of residential gardens. As the research project grew, Emory students tested the soil for the presence of lead, in addition to a number of other heavy metal and found levels of lead exceeding the EPA’s residential screening level. Maintaining a personal garden is very popular on the west side of Atlanta, with over 160 families participating in the practice. Residents have in fact been encouraged to garden as a way to provide low-income families with a source of healthy and sustainable food options.

Two years later, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken to testing and digging up contaminated soils for cleanup. Located west of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the lead investigation covers 368 properties over a span of 35 city blocks. Although it has not been confirmed, the EPA has speculated that the source of the contamination is the result of properties having been constructed on top of slag, a by-product of smelting, or the melting of metals, that leaves behind an array of heavy metals.

According to the EPA, lead exposure can lead to long-term nerve damage, increased blood pressure, reproductive problems, and hearing and vision impairments. Among children, lead poisoning can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, liver and kidney damage, developmental delays, behavioral problems and in extreme cases, death. The question that arises from the discovery of such high levels of lead in the soil is how long people have been exposed to the dangerous chemical through the consumption of gardened produce, children playing on top of contaminated soil and everyday proximity inhalation.

The question that also arises is how far the contamination can actually be spread and how many additional families could be affected? As part of the EPA cleanup project, many residential trees have been removed, resulting in increased instances of flooding. Although there are plans to replace removed trees and shrubs, flooding could spread the lead contamination to areas outside the site’s boundaries. Families outside the boundaries could potentially be at risk of contamination if they have not already been contaminated.

Soil and water contamination continues to be a growing concern across the country from operating or abandoned facilities, landfills, mining operations, pipelines, etc. Community members and susceptible populations (children, the elderly, pregnant women, etc.) are consistently exposed to the dangers of hazardous pollutants. Areas such as Atlanta, Georgia, Flint, Michigan and Asheville, North Carolina, to name a few, continue to work for the clean up of their communities. It is important to continue to encourage the appropriate and accurate testing of water and soil samples that people are exposed to on a daily basis and to monitor and enforce the safe cleanup of all communities.

Families within the Atlanta area are continuing to sign up for the testing of their properties and to have their children tested for possible lead poisoning.

For more information or questions on lead testing please contact our Science Director, Stephen Lester at slester@chej.org.

Photo credit: Curtis Compton for AJC