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Lead Contaminated Soil Right in the Middle of Atlanta?

When you move to an area, send your children to school in an area, or simply shop and enjoy recreation there, you expect that private owners, state and local government, and even the federal government have taken reasonable precautions to make sure that that place is safe and healthy. Unfortunately, Atlantans may soon find that they have been living, working and playing on top of soil that is full of toxic lead.

This was the story an Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter uncovered two weeks ago when she found that an Atlanta lead smelter had never been properly cleaned up after it ceased operation. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is now investigating the site of the old Evans Metal Company lead smelter at 740 Lambert Drive, near I-85, Piedmont Road, and Cheshire Bridge Road. Directly due to the work of the AJC, the EPA is now investigating whether the fact that the site was never properly cleaned could be affecting the health of residents in nearby areas.

According to state and federal law, potentially toxic sites such as the site of the old Evans Metal Company lead smelter are to be cleaned up before they are used for other purposes. But the Evans smelter, which ceased operations before clean up laws took effect, was forgotten by regulators. This means that the soil surrounding the old smelter could potentially be contaminate with lead.

Lead can pose a serious health risk. Just as we check old houses for lead paint, we also need to check our groundwater and soil for lead contamination. If ingested, especially by young children, lead can reduce IQ, cause behavioral problems, and underlie a whole range of health problems. In the case of the Evans smelter, which is now a concrete plant, the worry is that children living or attending school or day care in the area will experience lead contamination when they play in the dirt and put soil or dirty toys in their mouths.

According to experts, though the smelter stopped processing lead in 1994, lead in the soil would have remained relatively close to the surface through the years. The AJC found that private tests conducted in 2003 showed that large swaths of the property potentially contained dangerous amounts of lead. These tests were, illegally, not reported to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division even though regulations state that any tests that show dangerous lead levels should be reported within 30 days.

The biggest threat from this dirty smelter site is lead poisoning in children. According to the AJC, blood tests reported to the state from children in the area do not show an obvious pattern of lead poisoning, though according to experts, most children aren’t tested and lead poisoning has few apparent symptoms.

If you live in the area potentially affected by lead contamination (the nearest neighborhood is Morningside), here is what the AJC suggested you do:

Avoid bare dirt – This is the likeliest source of contamination

Test children – Lead testing is not a standard medical test given to children. Private doctors or public clinics can test for lead poisoning using a simple finger stick test.

Test your soil – The University of Georgia will test soil samples for $20 per sample. Contact the Fulton County extension office at 404-762-4077. According to the AJC, “Tulane University soil-lead expert Howard Mielke recommends separately sampling a few areas to get an idea of how lead levels may vary across a yard.”