Fishtown lead levels may require precautions

High levels of lead have been found in the soil around the old An­zon plant in Fishtown. EPA and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials say some pre­cau­tions could be help­ful.

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. ••

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