The Burden of Lead: West Dallas deals with contamination decades later
By VALERIE WIGGLESWORTH
The low-income neighborhood of older wood-frame homes in West Dallas is a far cry from the suburb of newly built brick houses in Frisco 30 miles to the north.
But the two North Texas communities share a bond: Both were contaminated by industrial lead for nearly half a century.
The 1984 closure of RSR Corp.’s smelter, where used car batteries were recycled, was just the beginning of West Dallas’ struggles with lead. Contamination from the smelter still exists there today, residents say. That raises questions about the road ahead for Frisco, where cleanup is just starting at the Exide Technologies smelter that shut down Nov. 30.
Overwhelming evidence points to the dangers of lead. And a strong link exists between the amount of lead in soil and the amount of lead exposure in children. They are the ones most susceptible to lead’s harmful effects because of their developing brains. Even small amounts of lead in a child’s blood can affect IQ scores, academic achievement and the ability to pay attention.
“It’s really critical to prevent these exposures in the first place,” said Bruce Lanphear, an international expert on lead toxicology. Lanphear is based at Simon Fraser University and BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“The problem with lead is it gets stored in our bones and stays with us for the rest of our lives,” he said.
In an effort to determine what levels of lead contamination exist in West Dallas today, The Dallas Morning News commissioned a toxicologist to test soils from more than 30 residential yards. The results show lead levels that can cause harm to children — though, in all but two cases, they fall below today’s federal cleanup standards for residential areas.
But those standards are getting a closer look. A landmark report released earlier this year by the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention noted that the federal standards for lead in residential soil, as well as in dust and water, are not sufficient to protect health. Much lower levels of lead exposure can cause harm.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is examining whether its lead policies need to change in light of the latest science. It is also trying to ensure sites already cleaned remain safe for residents.
The continuing lead problems in West Dallas should serve as a warning for Frisco, said Jim Schermbeck, an environmental advocate. Schermbeck has spent years fighting for more stringent standards for lead smelters and the subsequent cleanups, first in West Dallas and most recently in Frisco.
“If I was living in Frisco,” he said, “I’d want the best cleanup based on the best science.”
Both communities are dealing with the fallout from years of toxic emissions during the smelting process at what are known as secondary lead smelters. These smelters extract lead from used vehicle batteries and other scrap metal.
RSR and Exide came under scrutiny because of their too-high lead emissions, though the air-quality standard prior to the West Dallas smelter’s closure was less stringent than it is today.
All of that lead in the air eventually settled on the ground, where it bound to dirt in people’s yards and dust in their homes.
Another danger came from smelter wastes, such as crushed battery pieces, that were spread throughout neighborhoods where residents had little knowledge about the hazards. In West Dallas, the pieces were used in hundreds of yards and muddy driveways. In Frisco, they were used as a base in road and parking lot construction.
These battery chips often — but not always — signal lead contamination. No records exist on where or when they were dumped. But after all these years, they are still turning up. In the past 18 months, they’ve been found in Frisco on city property and along a creek, as well as in a few West Dallas yards.
Cleanups in West Dallas in the 1980s and ’90s, along with the help of a Superfund designation, removed tons of tainted soil.
But it doesn’t take much lead to contaminate soil. The amounts being measured are too small to be visible. Consider the contents of a packet of artificial sweetener, which equal 1 gram. One-millionth of a gram equals 1 part per million. Lead in soil is measured in parts per million.
Lead occurs naturally in the soil at about 15 to 30 parts per million. The EPA standard for cleanup in soil where children play is 400 parts per million.
The state of Minnesota considers lead contamination in soil to start at 100 parts per million, the level at which health effects may appear in children. California uses a screening standard of 80 parts per million in residential soil. Those standards aren’t meant to trigger cleanups but to suggest possible risks that may warrant further study.
Texas follows the EPA standard of 400 parts per million. Frisco uses a more stringent cleanup level of 250 parts per million. That level, which the city started using in the ’90s, was incorporated into the agreement for cleanup of property that Frisco will buy from Exide.
At a meeting last year in Frisco, Howard Mielke, a research professor at Tulane University, explained that children’s exposure to lead starts building with soil levels as low as 20 parts per million. Rather than waiting until children get exposed, he said, communities need to remove the sources of lead. See the rest of the story here.