ldquo;Should we get our soil tested?”
“What are you going to do?”
“If a child is sick with lead poisoning, who’s at fault?”
“What should we do?”
These were among the many questions that filled the room during Fishtown Action’s March 5 meeting, which hosted representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Philadelphia Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.
The EPA’s on-scene coordinator, Jack Kelly, addressed a crowd of anxious neighbors as they learned about substantially high levels of lead that have been detected in a recent soil sampling of six back yards in Fishtown.
Also on hand were Robert M. Himmelsbach, of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health; Ana Pomales, of the local office of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a government agency; and Alex Mandell, community-involvement coordinator for the EPA.
The soil testing had targeted part of the neighborhood around Aramingo Avenue, between Cumberland and York streets.
Now home to a number of restaurants and businesses —including Arby’s, Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts, Cold Stone Creamery, Rite Aid, Wawa and Applebees — the shopping corridor once was the location a lead plant that had operated since the 19th century.
The plant, shut down in the late 1990s, last operated under the name Anzon.
“This all started in about 2001,” said Kelly. “A man did his thesis paper on old smelters and found information on thirty-five lead facilities in the city. There were a lot in this area, quite a few in the Northeast and quite a few in South Philly. There are eleven sites in the city that people still live around.”
One of which, said Kelly, is the old Anzon site.
According to Kelly, the site generated some neighborhood tension in the late 1980s and early ’90s. A fire at the plant caused a lot of concern at the time, because it spread lead dust across neighborhood streets, homes and yards.
Anzon cleaned up the mess, in some cases lead-proofing some yards by cementing over the ground. Litigation eventually brought some compensation for other neighbors exposed to possible lead contamination.
Kelly and the other representatives, who acknowledged that the recent sample size of six back yards was not ideal, said the tested lead levels were consistently high enough that they wanted to make neighbors aware at last week’s meeting.
“That’s what prompted us to come out to you in the Old Kensington and Fishtown area,” Kelly said.
Pomales, whose office is a part of the CDC, similarly said that awareness is important. “We’re here to educate you and your children,” Pomales said.
She explained that adults aren’t likely to be affected as much as children by lead; adults’ nervous systems are fully developed, she said, and adults also aren’t likely to be playing in dirt.
Himmelsbach, a manager for the city’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, said that families with children need to be especially cautious when it comes to lead. It can be linked to certain abnormalities in children, including learning disabilities, high blood pressure and hearing problems, he said, adding that children who live in the area need to be tested.
“Children should be tested at one, two and three (years of age),” Himmelsbach said, explaining that children can receive free testing at Philadelphia’s health clinics. “Children over three and under six should get tested only once.”
FACT president Maggie O’Brien was glad the representatives attended the meeting. Residents have a right to know about the results of the testing and what locals can do to prevent high levels of lead from becoming a problem, she said.
ldquo;Lead poisoning is especially dangerous to children, and it’s important that people know all the dangers,” O’Brien said. “We live in these old houses, which were surrounded by lots of factories full of lead. People need to hear what they can do to fix this.”
Residents Michael and Lisa Conway, who are expecting a child, recently did work in their yard and were unaware of the threat. “It was suggested that we should attend this meeting since we live close to Greensgrow (Farms),” said Michael Conway.
The couple wanted to hear more about the dangers of lead in their back yard, especially with a baby due next month.
“What was previously in this neighborhood may have contaminated our soil,” Conway said.
What residents like the Conways were told was that there’s no need to panic. It’s not a looming issue as long as precautionary measures are taken, they were told.
Himmelsbach said that most of us are exposed to lead at all times. The homes closest to I-95 most likely have a similar problem because of heavy amounts of car exhaust from the late 1970s, when lead was still in gasoline, he said.
He also explained that more than 93 percent of the homes in Philadelphia were built before lead was banned for use on interior surfaces.
Kelly and Pomales said that living in a big city with old homes means it’s next to impossible not to encounter high levels of lead, whether from factories, car emissions, lead paint and other means.
The safest bet, according to the team, is to pave over the bare dirt in your yard. Other alternatives include covering the yard with new top soil, grass or other vegetation.
Although lead’s effects on soil are still being tested, Kelly reassured people that most vegetables aren’t affected by lead in the soil.
He did mention, however, that veggies such as leafy lettuce, which remain low to the ground, are more at risk because they may have particles of soil on them.
Kelly wants residents in the vicinity of the old Anzon plant to assume that lead levels are high in their yards and take action now.
ldquo;Clearly, my message is to parents with kids who have back yards with bare soil,” said Kelly.
At the end of the meeting, some residents seemed relieved.
One woman noted aloud that after a recent shooting on her corner, she’s more worried about crime than some lead in the ground. ••