Maya Rodriguez / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS-- Cities across the country have a long history of lead contamination in the soil. New Orleans is no different, but now a new project is underway, in hopes of finding the least expensive and most effective way to deal with lead contamination. It's a backyard experiment, with the potential to bring widespread change.
"We have already amended the soil," said Dr. Andrew Hunt, a professor with the University of Texas at Arlington.
Behind an abandoned home on St. Roch Avenue, Dr. Hunt is leading a team of UNO students and locals who are working on a way to fix soil which is contaminated with lead. Ben Shirtcliff is a UNO student, with a background in landscape architecture.
"As a landscape architect, in school, you're never really trained to think about what contaminants might be in the soil, as you're working on a project," Shirtcliff said. "So, when you install playgrounds, or school yards, or even your own backyard or somebody's playground equipment, it's never really part of our program to say, 'Hey let's test the soil first, make sure there's no lead or heavy metal contaminants that are going to hurt the kids.'"
The team is using different types of phosphate and mixing it into the soil to see if it chemically bonds with the lead. One of the mixtures is called "Appetite II" and is made from ground up fish bones. If the phosphate bonding works, it would make the lead insoluble. Hat means, even if the soil was ingested, the bonding would prevent the lead from being absorbed and entering the bloodstream.
"There's lots of lead in the soils here in New Orleans and that is a problem for young children," Dr. Hunt said. "It can affect neuronal development and impact their IQ."
According to guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency, there should be no more than 440 parts per million (PPM) of lead in soil where children might play-- and no more than 1,200 PPM anywhere else. In the St. Roch yard, though, the team found lead registering at 3,000 PPM-- nearly seven times higher than it should be for children.
Earlier this year, the city had to temporarily shut down several playgrounds for remediation, after finding lead in the soil.
Those working on this experiment hope their efforts will help develop a less expensive way to fix lead contaminated soil. HUD is funding the project with $500,000. The team will monitor the St. Roch site and others in the city over the next year.