Lead exposure in larimer: danger and potential presented by redevelopment

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SOC 0444: Urban Sociology, Spring 2013

Student: Timothy JD Ohlsen

University of Pittsburgh undergraduate

5876 Shady Forbes Terrace
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
(425) 345-4054

Faculty Professor: Waverly Duck, PhD

Department of Sociology
2619 Posvar Hall
Pittsburgh PA 15260
(412) 648-7566


Exposure to lead has numerous negative consequences for human health, especially in young children. Unfortunately, in many urban neighborhoods, especially in low-income communities, exposure to this harmful toxin is high enough to alter school performance, cause headaches, and diminish the quality of life for many children. This study combines known risk factors for high soil lead concentrations with Census data to suggest the large possibility of high lead concentrations in the East Pittsburgh neighborhood of Larimer. In light of Larimer’s high risk for lead, recommendations are presented for local leadership to combat further contamination during the planned redevelopment of the neighborhood.

Human Ecology and Childhood Lead Poisoning

Since Robert Park’s The City (1915) introduced the concept of human ecology, study of urban spaces has not only focused on cities and their artificial structures, but also the people who inhabit and interact amongst them. This rather biological inception compelled sociologists to consider the aspects of human networks within such areas, implying the importance of the very people who fill urban spaces over the actual structures; after all, cities are derived from human activity and organization. If we are to apply the Park’s concept to the study of urban sociology, we must acknowledge the human contributions to urban life, as well as the fact that collective ecological changes of an urban space have resounding effects on the residents at a personal level. At the same time, human ecology is most concerned with how these individual connections culminate as a larger complex network, not unlike single neurons forming a multifaceted, multimodal seat of consciousness within an equally complex brain or different species coexisting in a complex habitat. Thus, it is important to recognize the importance of human actions and choices in any sociological study of urban spaces.

One contemporary issue facing cities today is the threat of lead poisoning to children in many redeveloped neighborhoods. Sources of lead are usually derived from industrial sources of the urban environment, such as factories, paints, and vehicles. Furthermore, these macro sources can have serious repercussions on a micro, personal level. High lead concentrations are known to cause all sorts of health problems, and must be addressed in order to ensure a safe living environment for urban residents, especially youth.

My first experiences with lead paint occurred as a residential house painter. I remember the moments distinctly because numerous precautions had to be taken during every encounter with the substance. As required by law, my fellow painters and I donned the inconvenient regalia of special facemasks, goggles, and suits that sought to limit our exposure to the lead dust that arose from cleaning walls, stripping paint, and the entire process in general. While these procedures made working on houses with such restrictions rather annoying, the health and safety laws surrounding this chemical are in place for good reason. High levels of this toxic metal can cause a bevy of gastrointestinal and neurological issues, especially in children, where it interferes with development of the nervous system. Children exposed to even low levels of lead (generally 5 μg/dL blood concentration but as low as 2 μg/dL) exhibit lower IQs, poorer grades in school, and behavior deficits; at higher levels (15-80 μg/dL) children may experience headaches, severe gastrointestinal discomfort, violent convulsions, or even death (Zhang et al., 2013). Needless to say, limiting blood lead concentrations in children has been a prominent arena of focus during recent decades. Childhood lead exposure has dropped significantly since the federal implementation of policy such as banning lead paint and leaded gasoline; however, large disparities still exist and the incidence of lead poisoning is significantly higher in poor, urban, and minority populations, due to factors that will be touched upon below.

Traditional Sources of Lead Poisoning

Children usually acquire most of their lead from a relatively small set of common sources: namely, lead paint, lead dust in homes (often derived from lead paint and other products), soil lead, and water sources. Unsurprisingly, acquisition in children occurs mostly through ingestion, due to the frequent hand-to-mouth activity of young children. Youth in environments with greater access to various lead sources typically exhibit higher blood lead concentrations. Lead dust and lead paint are most commonly found in older homes, because lead paint in residential buildings was federally banned in 1978. Between 1950 and 1978, up to 50% homes were covered with lead-based paint and prior to 1950 the incidence was much higher (EPA). As estimated by the EPA, more than 3 million tons of lead-based paint remain in the 57 million homes constructed before 1980. In homes with deteriorating interiors—often lower-income residences or vacant structures—lead-based paint poses a problem because it can turn into accessible forms of lead: dust and paint chips, both of which may be ingested or inhaled by small children. Indeed, urban children from low-income families receive a large proportion of their lead from dust and paint sources inside their homes (Lanphear 1996), and consequently have higher blood concentrations of lead on average.

Lead paint on the exterior of buildings also contributes to potential lead sources, especially in the soil. Deteriorating exteriors as well as demolished homes result in lead seeping into the ground, where it usually remains near the surface due to various soil interactions (EPA). However, lead paint is not the only factor contributing to soil lead concentrations. Exhaust from leaded gasoline as well as industrial activity in local factories can also heavily contribute to the soil concentration. Regardless, soil is perhaps the most common source of lead for all children in urban (and rural) environments, and its contributions are relatively independent of family income level (Lanphear 1996). Susceptibility in urban neighborhoods to high soil lead concentrations may be due to at least one of three main factors. First, neighborhoods with low incomes, old structures, and deteriorating housing conditions result in greater lead exposure due to lead paint sources and more seepage into the ground. Second, neighborhoods historically linked to heavy industries and factories have been shown to have higher levels than other regions in cities similar to Pittsburgh such as Cleveland and Detriot (USA Today and EPA). Finally, redevelopment of older neighborhoods may leave lead residue in the ground as old structures are demolished. As many urban neighborhoods have these factors as part of their histories, it is no small wonder that urban soil routinely has a much higher lead concentration than rural areas (Aelion, 2013).

The Community of Larimer as a Case Study

Larimer (Census Tract 1208) is a small community located in the East End of Pittsburgh between East Liberty, Shadyside, and Homewood. The neighborhood was analyzed using the University of Pittsburgh’s PNCIS mapping application, a database of demographic information of Allegheny County. Larimer was home to 859 residents as of 2010. It is a relatively poor (less than 16% of owner-occupied homes are valued above $100,000), black (84.2%) neighborhood with a low level of academic attainment (less than 9% of residents over 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher). It is also home to Mount Ararat Church, a prominent middle-class African American church, and an involved recreational center that provides social services to residents. Several possible contributing factors to high soil lead are present in the community, making it a good case study to shape public policy regarding lead in urban spaces.

Figure : Peeling paint in old structures such as this Larimer home can be a dangerous source of lead.
Housing Conditions in Larimer. Overall, housing conditions in the 1208 Census Tract portion of Larimer (there is also a 1204 portion that was not studied) can be classified as deteriorating. While only 11 houses were reported as having dangerous condition code violations (e.g. broken windows, rotting interiors, etc.) in 2012, this number likely higher in reality due to unreported violations. Informal observation of the neighborhood confirmed this. The condition of housing in Larimer is significantly worse than East Liberty and Shadyside. Homewood, on the other hand, has many more deteriorating structures. In addition to code violations, as of October 2012, 336 lots were listed as vacant. It should be implicit that of these vacant properties, almost all have low upkeep and deteriorating conditions. Together, these risk factors suggest that Larimer could potentially be a site with high levels of soil lead from peeling paint and lead dust.

Figure : Dilapidated housing adjacent to a vacant lot. Both of these characteristics are risk factors for elevated soil lead concentrations.
Industry in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, the industrial history of Pittsburgh, with several factories located near Larimer and East Pittsburgh in general, has also probably contributed to higher lead concentrations. According to a special USA Today Report, in conjunction with the EPA, neighborhoods located close to old (even defunct) factories often had dangerously high concentrations of soil lead due to fallout. There are several heavy industrial factories in the vicinity of East Pittsburgh, such as Federated Metals and the Pitt Metals Company, which could have potentially contaminated Larimer and its surrounding neighborhoods with toxic metals during the course of their functioning. Larimer, along with East Liberty and Shadyside, lie in the windpath of several factories on the north east side of Pittsburgh.

Gentrification. Finally, Larimer is currently undergoing a gentrification process during which old structures are being bought out by the city and torn down in preparation for new structures. Larimer’s proximity to the burgeoning economic successes of East Liberty has caused many to view the neighborhood with ideas of potential redevelopment. As of October 2012, 197 properties in the neighborhood were owned by the city. Recently this year, the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh and Urban Redevelopment Authority have unveiled a $100 million redevelopment plan for 300 new mixed-income housing units as well as retail space in the neighborhood in a clear attempt to raise its wealth demographics as East Liberty and Bakery Square attract new residents. This housing redevelopment is part of a larger scheme titled the Larimer Plan, headed by various real estate and architectural firms around the city in conjunction with the Housing Authority (Carroll, 2010). The plan outlines many of the challenges described above, but also states that many aspects of the neighborhood are conducive to a profitable redevelopment. The authors propose building new residential spaces for middle-income earners while removing existing dilapidated houses, with the eventual goal of creating a mixed-income neighborhood with its own unique culture. In addition, the developers want to build a hip, green, sustainable atmosphere with LEED-certified buildings and green space to house potential urban farms and sporting facilities for youth, eventually placing Larimer among the newer, nicer neighborhoods in the city.

Figure : A proposed plan for the redevelopment of Larimer. Source: Larimer Vision Plan (2010).
Other groups have raised qualms over potential roadblocks. Some community authorities worry that investment in the neighborhood will not benefit residents so much as the outsiders to the neighborhood, such as middle-class workers and real-estate investors. Herbert Gans says as much in Urban Villagers, noting an example where redevelopment holds little benefit for the residents themselves, who cannot finance living in the new, foreign neighborhood and are eventually displaced from their homes to new, but similar, neighborhoods. When redevelopment occurs in Larimer, many residents will certainly be forced to move out of the neighborhood, but they will not merely disappear from the urban space. Rather, they are likely to leave for other similar neighborhoods, such as Homewood, McKeesport, or Penn Hills. With regard to soil lead concentrations, if proper actions are not taken, the redevelopment process may also potentially contribute to higher lead concentrations from lead paint sources. This exposure would increase when deteriorating old buildings and their lead paint-covered structures are demolished, releasing dust into the soil. There are methods to limit the spread of toxic heavy metals during the construction process, but these precautions must be taken if reducing soil lead concentrations is important enough to the city. Naturally, this risk is of great interest to incoming residents, especially if they have young children.

Limits to Larimer as a Case Study

At this point it is important to note that Larimer is by no means a perfect community to study with regards to the dangers of soil lead during gentrification, and thus this discussion is largely a more abstract one than may be applied to many urban issues. While the data clearly outline the presence of several risk factors that could contribute to high rates of lead contamination in children via dust and soil sources, there are several confounding influences one must take into consideration. First, there were no available data of soil lead concentrations in the specific neighborhood at the time of the study, so we can only assume based on the presence of several risk factors that soil lead concentrations could be high. Based on the risk factors that Larimer exhibits, it is a safe assumption that a relatively high level of lead is present in the soil and that demolition of so many old houses will only work to increase it; however, the extent of danger to citizens is unknown without specific figures. Second, there is very little quantitative data regarding the age and/or interior conditions of every home. The age of structures in Larimer can be estimated from various accounts, with most evidence suggesting that nearly all houses were built prior to 1970, which, considering the strong correlation between age of the house and lead paint content, points to several sources of lead to children. Yet, the lack of precise date quantification may still be considered a weak point of this study. Also, as Herbert Gans pointed out in The Urban Villagers, interior conditions are not necessarily equivalent to outward appearance. Still, a lack of information regarding either of these aspects does not seriously challenge the assertion of high soil lead concentrations; Larimer has been established as an old neighborhood and thus many houses can be assumed to have been built prior to lead paint legislation. In addition, interior conditions do not matter quite as much when houses are to be demolished during redevelopment anyway, because lead paint and dust will inevitably reach the soil unless special precautions are taken.

The Redevelopment of Larimer: Suggestions for Public Policy

Soil lead testing. Because of the risk factors outlined above, it would be prudent to order preliminary lead testing at several sites throughout the neighborhood, especially in areas designed to house residents with children, places designed for frequent youth activities, and other sites such as urban gardens. As has been discussed before, children are extremely susceptible to lead poisoning, and many vegetables also absorb lead from their environment (Angina and Sullivan, 2008). Soil lead testing is relatively affordable, and such an investment would immediately help clarify the extent of risk to residents in the community and better determine the steps that need to be taken to reduce soil concentrations, if steps must indeed be taken. Environmentally-friendly development will likely be a key calling-card for Larimer in order to attract middle-class residents, and the neighborhood’s actions should reflect such an image.

Lead education. Current and future residents of Larimer should be informed of the dangers of lead poisoning, especially its cognitive and developmental effects on children. Members of the community need to know how they can minimize lead sources within their control, such as safely disposing of peeling interior paint and preventing children from consuming soil. There are several churches and community centers in the neighborhood that interact with the neighborhood closely and can help spread awareness of lead contamination, especially if soil-testing results give highly dangerous levels. Places such as the Kingsley Center and Mount Ararat Church interact with a large network of the neighborhood’s residents and would be able to mitigate exposure widely at the individual level.

Consider permanent abatement procedures. While we do not have any precise data regarding concentration, if test results return very high (>800 ppm) levels of toxicity, permanent abatement would be a realistic option to consider for the neighborhood. During redevelopment, it would be possible—albeit somewhat expensive—to permanently abate the soil by removing the top few inches of soil (since lead stays near the top) and replacing it with clean topsoil. This method is certainly costly, so should be avoided if possible unless the lead levels are a dangerous hazard to human health. At lower levels of soil lead (>400 ppm), cheaper alternatives to permanent abatement such as covering contaminated soil with special layers or filters may be viable. Either method will certainly reduce the exposure of residents to lead. This further emphasizes the importance of testing, because although many lots in Larimer are at risk for high lead concentrations, different techniques might be able to be used on different properties, perhaps best optimizing cost.

Toxic lead concentrations have been long-established as threats to human—especially child—health and wellness. While debate concerning the specific dose required to cause negative symptoms continues, this much is certain: high levels of this toxic element seriously damages the body and in all cases, less lead exposure is better. The real question is balancing the costs of lead removal with the detrimental health costs associated with high concentrations. Analysis of the Larimer neighborhood reveals multiple factors that might contribute to high soil concentrations and endanger local residents. Property redevelopment poses as a potential danger and boon in this regard. On one hand, demolition of old, decaying houses has the potential to release more toxic lead into the soil. Yet, such redevelopment efforts may be a golden opportunity to address soil lead before the construction of new homes. Most of this evaluation cannot be made until thorough soil testing is completed. We recommend that the city funds such efforts immediately. In the meantime, local community institutions can help spread awareness amongst residents in hopes of reducing their exposure. This method may effectively reduce individual exposure at a low fiscal cost. Following soil testing, stronger policy suggestions will be possible to make.


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