Why Is McCarren Park’s Soil Lead Contaminated?

McCarren Park (Ryan Vaarsi/Flickr)

Does McCarren Park have a lead contamination problem? A new report from WNYC found lead contamination levels above 150 ppm in 87 percent of the 30 soil samples taken in the beloved Greenpoint park.

The report also found soil with lead contamination in Prospect Park and Astoria Park in Queens.

For the McCarren soil testing WNYC focused on the grassy circle near the western entrance at the corner of Lormier Street and Bedford Avenue behind the restrooms:

Our focus was on an oval-shaped plot at the northeast corner that’s typically crowded with picnicking families in warm weather. Historic insurance maps reveal a company that made window sashes, blinds and doors once occupied the site in the 1880’s. Present-day aerial images show large patches of bare soil throughout the park.

Out of 30 samples tested in this one area, 87 percent were above 150 ppm. All exceeded 80 ppm. The average lead level was 201 ppm, making McCarren the most contaminated park WNYC tested.

The WNYC Map of soil samples

The map uses color coding to show where the samples measure in relation to differing standards of the current EPA’s New York standard (400 ppm), the proposed New York standard (150 ppm) and California’s standard (80 ppm).

Lead exposure can cause neurological damage and children are especially vulnerable, but the study also notes that the vast majority of NYC children who have elevated lead in their blood were exposed to lead paint in their homes.

A brief explanation in the study as to why the soil in Brooklyn is widely contaminated hints at the manufacturing history of the borough.

Greenpoint and Williamsburg had dozens of manufacturers and industrial businesses emitting toxins as late as the 1990s, possibly impacting the soil in our parks today. A Hunter College study from 1989 entitled “Hazardous Neighbors? Living Next Door to Industry in Greenpoint-Williamsburg” profiles buildings where toxic chemicals were being used and stored for various manufacturers.

The 1989 “Hazardous Neighbors” study from Hunter College summarized the potential sources of toxicity at the time.

 

An excerpt from “Hazardous Neighbors”

It turns out that Brooklyn’s lead paint legacy is geographically tied to the McCarren Park area, where NJZ Colors operated at 105 Bedford Avenue manufacturing neon paint. NJZ Colors made “orange and yellow powder pigments used in road paints.” The Hunter College report goes on to explain:

“The pigments NJZ makes contain large quantities of lead compounds, especially lead chromate…The plant uses almost 10 million pounds per year of lead compounds.”

An excerpt from “Hazardous Neighbors”
The approximate former location of NJZ Paint, steps from McCarren Park (Google Maps)

The lead found in McCarren Park’s soil could come from a large number of potential sources, and the most ubiquitous former polluter was automobiles. Lead used to be an ingredient in gasoline until it was phased out in the 1970s as the WNYC report points out. The lead particles often landed and mixed into the soil, making Brooklyn’s manufacturing neighborhoods like Greenpoint especially impacted.

Our lead-tainted soil has been an open secret for years, and for those interested in testing their backyard soil the North Brooklyn Neighbors are holding a free “Soil Safety Basics: Lead in Soils Workshop” this Saturday at 110 Kent Ave at 10 a.m.

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