OPINION: Some choose home value over health by opting out of lead testing

Emory researcher advocates proactive approach to managing soil contamination
Elizabeth Burns gardened in her backyard in the Buckhead area of Atlanta until she discovered it was contaminated with lead. (Andy Miller/KFF Health News)

Credit: (Andy Miller/KFF Health News)

Credit: (Andy Miller/KFF Health News)

Elizabeth Burns gardened in her backyard in the Buckhead area of Atlanta until she discovered it was contaminated with lead. (Andy Miller/KFF Health News)

Eri Saikawa has received a few interesting emails over the past two years.

Saikawa is the Emory University researcher whose team uncovered massive lead contamination on Atlanta’s Westside. Her work eventually led to more than 1,000 properties being classified as Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the emails came from Elizabeth Burns, a Peachtree Park resident who was concerned about a rock-like material she had discovered in her backyard. Burns had seen reports about the soil cleanup on the Westside and recognized slag, a waste byproduct that can indicate heavy metal contamination. She had tons of it in her backyard and sent photos to Saikawa, reported KFF Health News.

Saikawa’s testing revealed that Burns was correct. Her Peachtree Park property has since landed on the EPA’s list of sites with dangerous contaminants that need to be removed, though Burns is still waiting for the agency to approve the cleanup.

It’s likely that the problem goes well beyond Burns’ property, Saikawa said. But the response to the possibility of widespread soil contamination in the Buckhead neighborhood has been starkly different from the response on the Westside.

“There is no incentive to test the soil,” Saikawa told me. “Everyone is worried about home values.”

Saikawa has received only a handful of emails from other residents in Burns’ neighborhood inquiring about lead contamination in the soil. One resident didn’t want soil testing, but did want the researcher to come and take away the slag. (That’s not her job.)

People in wealthier neighborhoods have more resources to address soil contamination, Saikawa said, but the only way to know about it is to have their soil tested.

For a host of reasons, ranging from lax environmental regulations to lack of education, lead contamination in soil isn’t high on anyone’s list of priorities, she said.

“When people think about lead, they think paint or water because of Flint,” Saikawa said, referring to the city in Michigan where tens of thousands of residents were exposed to lead in their drinking water. “That is problematic because gardening is so popular, and everyone isn’t using raised beds.”

Gardening is what first led Saikawa and her team to the contamination on the Westside. Urban soils often contain high levels of heavy metals from roadway, housing and industrial sources. Health risks include learning disabilities and brain nerve damage in children and high blood pressure and fertility problems in adults.

In a 2021 paper, Saikawa suggested the need for more nuanced public health guidelines for heavy metals and metalloids in soil. A year later, Georgia legislators lowered the threshold for the amount of lead in children’s blood that would trigger state regulatory action. It’s now more in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, and the state Department of Health strongly urges all parents to have their children tested for lead.

But there is still a disconnect, Saikawa said.

“If people aren’t working in the garden or don’t have kids, it may not matter to them,” she said. “There is a need for clear, enforceable standards that encourage easy preventative measures to be placed at urban farms and gardens,” she wrote in the paper.

I wanted to learn more about soil testing, so I attended the 8th annual Soil Festival at Maddox Park on May 6. The University of Georgia Extension offers testing on samples sent in to the county extension office, but this is mostly for the home gardener who wants to identify nutrients that may be missing in the soil. For heavy metal testing, I was advised to visit the county office in person.

This kind of testing is voluntary and, without education, guidelines or standards, it’s hard to make it urgent — or even relevant — for those who can afford it.

For those who can’t afford it, offering free, convenient testing for lead in soil could engage more residents. More programs should also target under-resourced neighborhoods. And, as Saikawa notes, government agencies need to work together to support the common cause of protecting public health.

Saikwawa and her team created community-based soil sampling events called SoilSHOP to help increase the amount of testing for lead. Attendees bring soil samples, which are analyzed free of charge on site. Saikawa said they are considering offering finger prick blood tests at the events to check lead levels in the body.

“I don’t know what the best strategy is,” she said. “I don’t have a perfect model. But, if we can make testing more regular, that is a start.”

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.