An ongoing study by Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, in collaboration with the local community organization Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, has been testing Greenpoint’s soil for lead. Since this spring, the Columbia team has analyzed 264 soil samples from 52 neighborhood backyards. Their preliminary results show that 92% of Greenpoint backyards have soil with lead concentrations that exceed what the EPA considers safe for residential soil. Some of the soil samples exceed that mark by 7 or 8 times the safety limit — which makes them more adulterated than soil found in some polluted Peruvian mining communities.
Children are more likely than adults to be affected by high concentrations of lead, and according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, children in Greenpoint are about 4 times more likely to have lead poisoning than children in other New York City neighborhoods. A post about the study on the University’s Earth Institute Blog explains that lead “poses the most serious threats to children under the age of six. As a neurotoxin, it disrupts growth in young brains, increasing a child’s risk of developing a low I.Q., Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and behavioral problems.” Accordingly, many of the participants in the study have been parents who found the project through Neighbors Allied for Good Growth. The blog goes on to point out that while the study suggests that the concentration of lead in Greenpoint soil may be connected to the higher instance of lead poisoning in Greenpoint children, the study has not proven that yet.
The lead seems to be distributed throughout Greenpoint. According to Franziska Landes ,the PhD candidate leading the study, “there’s not one clear hotspot. One of the challenging things about working in an urban area is there are so many potential sources of contamination.” She adds that Greenpoint’s industrial history may have contributed to current levels of lead in our soil. “Soils are recording this history, because lead doesn’t go away,” she said.
But, the study has shown a marked difference in lead concentration between private backyards and public parks and sidewalks. While 62% of private yards had soil samples with lead concentrations exceeding the industrial standard, just 14% of samples collected from public parks and sidewalks reached those levels. While its still unclear why there is such a marked difference between public and private soil, the Columbia blog suggests that while private yards may contain “older soils carrying the legacy of leaded gasoline, waste incineration, and industrial byproducts; public spaces are more likely to have new soil and mulch hauled in from elsewhere for landscaping.”
If you would like to have your yard tested for lead, you can sign up here to be part of the study. In the meantime, this handy fact sheet prepared by Cornell University, “What Gardeners Can Do: 10 Best Practices for Healthy Gardening,” recommends using raised beds and mulch when gardening, and washing your hands and produce when you come back inside.
While local green thumbs can precautions like these to help protect themselves, Borough President Eric L. Adams calls on municipal agencies to protect Greenpoint. He said in a statement, “We must address the threat of lead exposure wherever it may pose a risk. Just as I have called on the DOE to take appropriate steps to safeguard our public school water supply, I urge both DEC and DEP leadership, as well as that of any additionally relevant agencies, to prioritize the sensible testing of neighborhood soil samples as well the proactive and robust dissemination of information that ensures families are aware of the facts. This vibrant industrial community has been no stranger to environmental abuse. Greenpoint has faced a toxic history on and around Newtown Creek, as well as the site of one of the largest oil spills in American history. Local residents and businesses have the right to expect the full attention of government in making this a safer place to raise healthy children and families.”