Lead paint and power sanding in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods of New Orleans
Lead poisoning is a serious problem in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods of New Orleans, where soil lead levels are exceptionally high due to dispersal of lead paint dust during historic renovation. Low-level lead poisoning, known as a "silent epidemic", affects children by lowering their IQs, impairing school performance, and causing social and behavioral problems. Using safer methods of lead paint removal, or encapsulating intact lead paint, will help to limit further soil contamination.
- Lead, a toxic metal
- Lead in the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods of New Orleans
- Safer ways to renovate
Lead, a toxic metal
Lead is a dangerous, toxic metal that has contaminated the soil of the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods of New Orleans. Even very small amounts of lead can be detrimental to cognitive and neurological development in children, leading to the very real possibility that a population of children growing up in neighborhoods with lead-contaminated soil will perform more poorly in school than their peers in clean environments, have lower IQs, and suffer from higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems. In New Orleans, high lead levels have been associated with lower LEAP scores, according to a 2009 study by S. Zahran et al. In fact, this study found that lead exposure was an even more powerful predictor of student performance than class size.
The neurobehavioral effects of lead poisoning are not simply confined to young children. In elementary-aged children, high lead levels have been associated with disruptive behavior, hyperactivity, distractibility, impulsivity, disorganization, non-persistence, and inability to follow simple instructions. In older teenagers, such levels have been associated with an increased risk of dropping out of high school, increased reaction times and slower finger tapping, reading disabilities, lower class standing, increased absenteeism, lower vocabulary and grammatical-reasoning scores, and an increase in juvenile delinquency. It stands to reason that high rates of lead poisoning can lead to higher rates of poverty, disempowerment, and crime in lead-contaminated communities.
Previously, it has been thought that blood lead levels under 10 ug/dl in children could be considered "safe". This is the threshold that New Orleans uses to define lead poisoning, in terms of a need for intervention. Unfortunately, lead levels above just 5 ug/dl have been associated with lowered IQs, indicating that lead can exert neurotoxic effects even at these low levels. (A note to parents: the IQ deficits are small at these levels- around 5 points- so there is no need to panic or leave the city if your child has a lead level in this range, but you should implement preventative measures to lower your child's blood lead level.) Unfortunately, simply playing in Marigny/Bywater soil can be enough to result in levels of 5 ug/dl or higher. Parents can lower their children's lead levels through several practical measures: not allowing children to eat or put their fingers in their mouths until they have washed their hands after playing outdoors, mopping floors regularly, and ensuring that children have good nutrition. However, measures like not allowing toddlers to put their fingers in their mouths are easier said than done, and many Marigny/Bywater parents have experienced difficulty and frustration in trying to lower their children's blood lead levels here. As a community, we can also take action to prevent lead poisoning— through better environmental practices that will help to limit further soil contamination.
Lead in the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods of New Orleans
Soil lead levels in the Marigny and Bywater are among the highest in the city. The main sources of lead contamination in residential urban settings have been leaded gasoline (outlawed in 1986) and lead-containing paint (outlawed in 1978, with peak use in the 1920s and a sharp decline in the 1940s). Whereas leaded gasoline contributes more to soil lead contamination in urban settings in general, soil lead levels in the Marigny/Bywater are exceptionally high, in relatively low-traffic areas. Our neighborhoods are also exceptional in the level of renovation activity taking place here. Neglected for years, most of our beautiful homes require(d) removal of lots of old, peeling paint. The unsafe removal of this old, lead-containing paint during renovation appears to be a major culprit for our lead-contaminated soils. Dry power sanding without the use of properly filtered vacuums is the least safe method of paint removal, in terms of soil contamination.
When lead paint is removed by dry sanding, it forms a cloud of toxic lead dust that blows and settles into the soil. The fine dust becomes a part of the soil. Unlike more complex molecules, lead is an element; it does not break down under natural conditions. Moreover, it is very heavy, and relatively insoluble in water. Therefore, it will not blow away or wash away with the rain. It will remain where it falls for years. The only practical way to remediate lead-contaminated soils is to remove them or cover them with a layer of clean soil. (Fortunately, the same qualities that make lead so persistent in the environment also make this method of remediation a practical one.)
Safer ways to renovate
While many of us are concerned about lead toxicity, people do need to paint their houses, and if the old paint is peeling or degrading, it will need to be removed. Fortunately, less harmful alternatives to dry sanding do exist. The key is to produce as little dust as possible. Wet hand scraping results in large chips of paint being removed, which can be gathered in a tarp spread on the ground underneath the wall being worked on. Another alternative is wet sanding with a special sander equipped with a lead (HEPA) filter vacuum attachment, which vacuums the sanded paint dust into a bag as the sanding takes place. Power-washing is NOT recommended. Though it is wet, it scatters the paint particles. The basic idea behind safer lead paint removal is to allow the old paint to be recovered, for example by laying down a tarp before work begins and then gathering up the tarp, which should contain all or most of the paint chips, or by collecting wet-sanded dust in a vacuum bag. (Normal household vacuums or shop vacs should not be used, as they will actually release lead dust into the air. HEPA vacuums, with their special lead filters, are required for lead dust cleanup.)
Another alternative that may be surprising is to simply leave the old paint alone. If you have lead paint on your house, but the paint is in good condition, it is safest to simply paint over the old paint. Special paints called encapsulants can seal the lead paint to the surface, which will prevent it from chipping off. If the lead paint is encapsulated, it will not produce lead dust, and is not dangerous.
Of all of the methods of paint removal, it is dry power sanding that produces the most lead dust, and is most dangerous. In September 2001, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed an ordinance banning dry-sanding of lead-based paint. However, enforcement of this ban has been spotty and disorganized. Recently, city officials such as health commissioner Karen DeSalvo have been sympathetic and active in addressing the problem of lead contamination, including by remediating the soil in contaminated parks. However, while remediation of parks and yards where children play is a welcome and necessary step towards creating a lead-free Marigny, these efforts will be undermined if power sanding of lead paint continues to disperse new lead dust to the soil.