Professor and Chair of Geology, IUPUI
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High lead levels in the blood of children in a west side Indianapolis neighborhood have spurred a study of 'legacy lead.' The data will lead to strategies for improving community health, both here and in similarly afflicted inner-city communities.
Nearly 400,000 American children under age five suffer from lead poisoning. Odds of being in that group are about 10 times greater if the child lives in an older urban area such as Indianapolis, Louisville or New Orleans.
Lead poisoning causes irreversible brain damage, with effects including permanently lowered IQ and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.But the source is not only the highly publicized ingestion by children of lead paint from toys or interior paint, according to biogeochemist Gabriel Filippelli.
Research by the professor and his students show lead is making its way from contaminated inner-city soils into the air and thatthis harmful sourceis at its worst during drier summer months.
One of the worst sites in central Indiana for children with high lead levels in their bloodstream is on the west side of Indianapolis in the WESCO (Westside Cooperative Organization), and that is where Filippelli and his students have initiated the first-ever community environmental assessment.
"IUPUI and WESCO have had a longstanding relationship," said Filippelli, associate director of the IU Center for Environmental Health. "But this is the first major environmental assessment conducted since that partnership was formed.
Researchers are currently mapping the lead burden of soils in the WESCO neighborhood through extensive soil sampling. Samples go through a round of analysis that identifies lead content and other geochemical parameters that help to identify different sources.
Lead was phased out of house paint beginning in 1950, food canners stopped using lead solder in 1991 and the phase-out of lead in gasoline was completed in 1980. But "legacy" lead from decades of automobile emissions remains, mostly inside the top 10 centimeters of soil and mostly in high-drive areas such as urban cores.
Funded in 1999 with approximately $400,000 from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the effort to foster university and community partnerships included development of a community outreach partnership center, creation of a WESCO community health survey and health promotion programs, and programs to enhance economic development and education policy and programming within Indianapolis' near west side.
The neighborhood contains the city's oldest branch library and the Concord Homes Public Housing complex, and is bounded by Tibbs Avenue on the west, the White River to the east, West 16th Street to the north and West Washington Street to the south.
Studies have found a significant number of children in the neighborhood with lead levels above the Center for Disease Control limit of 10 micrograms per deciliter, a level that Filippelli and some other scientists say should be lowered further.
"Some say the worst cognitive effects are seen closer to two micrograms per deciliter," he said. "Hence, there have been some strong calls to reduce the safety level to two."
One thing the research is already pointing toward is the possibility that higher lead levels in urban children are related to a combination of weather, soil moisture and wind. With already higher than normal lead levels, urban soils then release lead at higher rates when the weather is warm, dry and windy.
Soil and dust contaminated decades ago with lead from industry, autos and paint is ingested by young children when the soils become dry and are blown into the air, Filippelli said. The worst places appear to be near major roadways where lead would have more easily accumulated in soils.
There are remediation opportunities but the three primary methods are expensive. The most economical would be to spray water on dirt-covered yards during periods of low soil moisture, usually mid-July through mid-September. Another tool would be to place a layer of new, clean soil on top of contaminated soil and then planting and maintaining grass. The final, most costly method would be removal of the soil.
"The big part of this research is when we will take the general data that we've come up with then work it down to improving the individual health of a community and its kids," Filippelli said. "We will be able to use the data we've gathered in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Syracuse and apply it to many older urban areas that suffer higher-than-usual rates of childhood lead poisoning."
Funding for this research came from internal seed money provided through the IUPUI School of Science and the IU School of Medicine, but Filippelli said enough research now shows lead poisoning is occurring from non-paint sources that external funding will be pursued to continue the work.
Filippelli is considered a leader in the field of medical geology and was the first elected chair of the Geological Society of America's Geology and Health Division. His work also includes research and comparative analysis of ocean circulation patterns thousands of years ago with changing North Atlantic patterns evidenced today.