Editorial: Lead monitors fail kids near ghost factories

April 23rd, 2012 · 10:55 pm @   - 

So lead-based paint and leaded gasoline are now banned or restricted.

In scores of neighborhoods around the nation, however, another major source of lead has been widely ignored — even hidden — from unsuspecting residents. The neighborhoods, many in inner cities, were once the sites of lead smelters — factories that produced or recycled lead and often spewed plumes of particles and dust that heavily contaminated the surrounding soil.

These ghost factories, which operated mostly from the 1930s to the 1960s, are long gone. But their toxic legacy persists decades later in backyards, ball fields, parks and many other places where kids play — invisible, threatening and often unaddressed until a team of USA TODAY reporters exposed the problem during a 14-month investigation.


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It’s a menace that could have been eradicated long ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency or state regulators could have intervened. They had a guide to where those ghost factories once operated: A research paper published in a public health journal in 2001 pointed out the locations of more than 400 likely lead producers that went out of business before the EPA was created. In some cases, authorities searched the sites, tested them, discovered high lead concentrations and ordered cleanups.

But indifference or incompetence were more common. Officials failed to track down locations and test soil for lead content. Too often, even when authorities confirmed dangerously high lead levels in surrounding soil, they decided — inexplicably — not to warn residents of the danger. In 2002 and 2003, for example, Ohio environmental officials found dangerously high lead levels near an old smelter site in a Cleveland neighborhood and told both the federal EPA and the city health deparment, but none of the agencies told the residents.

Neither the federal EPA nor its state counterparts have any excuse for failing to do what the reporters did. That was, after all, the agencies’ job. They just weren’t up to it. In many cases where authorities claimed old factory sites didn’t exist or couldn’t be found, reporters used old fire insurance maps and other public records to pinpoint their whereabouts. They filed more than 140 Freedom of Information Act requests to gather more data. Where authorities either hadn’t found sites, or had found them but not tested nearby lead levels, reporters used a soil analyzer to test for lead in 21 neighborhoods. In several cases, the reporters found five to 10 or more times the level the EPA says is dangerous.

And, finally, in many places where authorities had known of potential dangers but had never told residents, reporters gave families the news.

EPA has no explanation. It didn’t even respond to requests for an opposing view for this editorial, so it’s hard to know what officials were thinking. The best excuse is that EPA and state agencies have too much to do and not enough money to do it. But with the health of children in play, that’s far too charitable, particularly in cases where they knew the danger and kept it secret. Parents can’t protect their children from a threat if they don’t know it exists.

Now that the danger has been exposed, it surely will be addressed. In fact, in some places, that’s already happening. But Congress and state legislatures ought to be probing deeply into the reasons why this happened. When kids are needlessly left at risk, something is very, very wrong.


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