Getting the lead out of communities

While government regulations imposed in the 1970s have largely driven lead-based paint from the market, lead contamination continues to affect the health of populations in major cities across the country. In Pittsburgh, lead poisoning is a serious health hazard, with effects that extend beyond contaminated water. Elevated lead-levels in the soil of specific neighborhoods, such as Homewood, indicate how economically, politically and culturally marginalized communities bear a disproportionate amount of the environmental hazards that we face as a city.

The recent crisis in Flint, Mich., sheds light on the persistence of lead poisoning, but reports continue to focus primarily on water contamination. And with good reason: Tests done in 2013 determined that the lead levels in Pittsburgh’s water supply have risen since 1999, when they averaged 2 parts per billion, to 14.7 parts per billion of lead — only 0.3 parts per billion away from necessitating a federal intervention.

However, despite the well-deserved attention to water contamination, the highest lead readings come from residual lead in soil, as well as lead-based paint used in homes built prior to the 1970s. Lead does not biodegrade or disappear; rather, it remains in soil for thousands of years and can cause several developmental and behavioral problems in children. For example, prolonged exposure has been linked to reduced IQ, ADHD, impaired growth and learning disabilities.

In 2014, the Pennsylvania and New Jersey departments of health conducted blood tests on lower-income children in selected cities to monitor exposure to lead. Children are particularly susceptible to the negative neurological and biological effects of lead poisoning and are more likely to be exposed to contaminated soil in parks, school playgrounds and older homes. Compared with other cities in the study, Pittsburgh tests revealed exceptionally high lead exposure in 660 of the 7,935 children in the sample.

In addition to increasing exposure risks, race and class differences across neighborhoods may affect how government responds to pollution and local health issues. The soil in Homewood is particularly likely to contain elevated lead levels, as compared with other Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Whereas only 25 percent of the neighborhood’s population was African-American in 1950, by 1960 the figure had increased to 70 percent, rising to 98 percent by 1990. This prompted white flight that, alongside racial polarization, has eroded Homewood’s tax base and led to economic decline.

According to a recent report by the Urban Institute, poverty is particularly pervasive among Pittsburgh’s African-American communities. Nearly one in three African-American residents is considered poor by state standards, accounting for 80 percent of those living below the poverty line. Economic disparities between black and white populations have historically been persistent in the region, evidenced by the city’s high levels of residential segregation. In neighborhoods like Homewood, where 45 percent of the population lives in poverty, ill-maintained homes, parks and schools make residents more vulnerable to lead contamination, as well as other environmental problems.

As part of a study investigating environmental issues faced by disadvantaged neighborhoods, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have conducted preliminary tests of the soil in Homewood. Measurements were collected at three sites — the Westinghouse High School, Homewood-Brushton YMCA and Homewood Senior Center — using soil test reports made by Pennsylvania State University’s Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory.

These tests revealed that Westinghouse High School has approximately 100 times the acceptable concentration of lead in its surrounding soil, while the YMCA and Homewood Senior Center have roughly 10 times the acceptable concentration.

Lead paint deposits from dilapidated structures that once stood on vacant lots may be one of the primary sources of soil contamination in Homewood, which currently contains the largest number of vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties in Pittsburgh. Indeed, with 44 percent of its 5,138 parcels of land being vacant lots — twice the citywide rate — Homewood is particularly susceptible to contamination risks.

The crisis in Flint has made Pittsburgh’s water contamination a primary concern for city officials. However, they continue to overlook the larger effects of lead contamination from other sources. Further research on lead contamination in Pittsburgh may reveal how environmental hazards differ across neighborhoods.

This research should attend closely to variation by race and class. Citywide research that assumes contamination is uniform across neighborhoods only provides a partial picture of the risks and impacts; the city’s changing demographic situation calls for more nuanced studies of the health issues facing our increasingly heterogeneous population.

Bhavini Patel graduated this year from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Philosophy in International Area Studies, Sociology and Africana Studies.

Originally published at on August 26, 2016.