Wednesday, August 26, 2015

10 Years After Katrina, Lead Poisoning Exposed

Recovering city works to protect children from lead exposure

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, New Orleans was devastated by flooding and destruction. Nearly ten years later, the city has been repairing and rebuilding – but with unexpected obstacles along the way. After the hurricane there was turmoil as long time residents left and newcomers moved in, changing the city’s structure. The inner city, long occupied primarily by low income families, hadn’t suffered severe flooding, but general upheaval meant residents were replaced by young, middle class families. The neighborhood has settled somewhat over the years, but recent discoveries of childhood lead poisoning mean that the inner city is once again in turmoil as residents are realizing hidden dangers in their new homes.

Lead paint removal is crucial to children's health
Long-time residents and newcomers alike face lead poisoning in New Orleans
Families and health officials in New Orleans have long been aware of the dangers of lead, recognizing that exposure to lead in childhood can lead to lifelong physical and mental health challenges. Racial tensions in the city were heightened by a pattern of inequality in health: black residents were historically twice as likely as white residents to live in neighborhoods where there children were exposed to unhealthy amounts of lead. Many children were tested for lead poisoning, and levels of lead in neighborhoods were monitored; before the storm, the risks of lead were widely recognized.

After Katrina, discussions about lead shifted: while hurricanes can produce new health problems, officials found lower levels of lead in New Orleans soil and lower rates of lead poisoning throughout the city. While the cause is still unclear, many suggest that the storm brought cleaner soil to cover and seal off lead-laden yards and parks. The lower levels of lead and the appearance of a fresh start made it all the more surprising when new residents began discovering that their children’s blood contained startlingly high amounts of lead, just as earlier residents had found.

The inner city, which had mostly been spared extreme flooding, had missed the clean soil brought in by the storm and still had the same high levels of lead that had always been present. Poor lead paint removal techniques by untrained or unknowing workers had contributed to the problem: rebuilding the city meant releasing new lead particles into the air and soil. The Environmental Protection Agency has regulations guiding how structures containing lead should be built, demolished, or renovated; EPA lead certifications ensure that workers can build while protecting themselves and the families around them. Without these certifications, workers had simultaneously rebuilt and poisoned the city that was trying to be reborn.

Some families have taken to covering their yards, cleaning meticulously, and wiping down shoes and pets to avoid any lead-contaminated dust; others have been forced to move, unable to identify the source of the contamination. Families that can’t afford to move can only watch and worry while their children inhale dangerous particles, unable to detect or avoid the threat to their health. 

There is hope, though: neighborhoods are coming together to cover backyards, clean playgrounds, and ensure that all work in the city is done smartly and safety. During these efforts, well-trained renovators and contractors are crucial; families are acutely aware of the importance of proper lead removal strategies, and the demand for EPA Certified Lead Renovators is high. With determination and proper techniques, the city is working to reclaim poisoned neighborhoods and protect children from lead exposure.

Renovation activities in older homes can create lead hazards if not performed correctly. Property owners and contractors alike should be familiar with the EPA regulations and lead-safe work practices prior to performing any home renovation or painting projects on pre-1978 structures. Visit to learn more!