Getting the lead out of Detroit’s soil

Getting the lead out of Detroit’s soil

How Detroit groups are working to reduce child lead exposure from contaminated soil.

Michelle Martina’s 3-year old daughter playing behind the family home in Jefferson Chalmers.

Eight years after April Ross purchased her East Village home from a private California seller in 2010, she discovered her daughter was lead poisoned.

Her daughter Rayna showed an elevated blood lead level (EBLL) of nine micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for action for any level above five. 

Ross describes the home’s condition when she first bought it as a “shell with back taxes.” The house, built in 1909, had been slated for demolition. Situated in the midst of properties owned by Hantz Farms, the exterior featured peeling and chipping paint, as did most other houses and vacant lots in the area. 

Ross knew that lead contamination in and around the home could be a problem. She realized she needed to watch her daughter Rayna’s lead levels.

When Ross took her daughter for her annual physical appointment, she discovered Rayna’s blood lead levels were elevated. The doctor scheduled regular follow-up visits to monitor Rayna.

Rayna’s blood lead levels reached as high as 12 µg/dL over six months before they decreased. Soon, she was traumatized by getting poked with needles monthly. 

“You can’t even say the word doctor around her [without her crying],” Ross said.

April Ross with her daughter Rayna, 4, in front of their home. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Fortunately, Rayna, now four years old, responded well to treatment. Ross fed her foods high in iron to help block Rayna’s body from absorbing lead. She and her husband removed the carpeting in the home and installed laminate floors to reduce the family’s exposure to lead dust.

Rayna’s blood levels are monitored every year and remain below the CDC’s action level. Her next doctor’s appointment is approaching, and Ross hopes to learn that her levels are still below five µg/dL. There is no amount of lead in blood considered safe by health experts.

Although Rayna is doing well now and seems to have normal cognitive function, it took extra training. â€œThey had to teach her to talk because she didn’t learn that by herself,” said Ross. “But now she’s an extra smart little girl!”

Ross knows other children in the neighborhood are at risk for lead exposure, and their parents may not realize it.

“There’s a lot of people down here that’s affected by the lead also, is what I’m seeing,” Ross said. “So I do try and help my neighbors.”

April Ross with her daughter Rayna, 4. Photo by Nick Hagen.

The number of children in Detroit with elevated blood levels has declined by 50% over the past decade, largely due to work led by activists to educate families about the dangers of lead exposure.

But hundreds of children in Detroit still become exposed and poisoned by the potent neurotoxin every year. In 2019, Detroit recorded 855 children with elevated blood lead levels and 598 in 2020. The drop is most likely attributable to a decline in testing during the pandemic.

Although Ross doesn’t know exactly how her daughter was exposed to lead, one possible route is through the soil around her home. Homes and the soils surrounding them across Detroit are contaminated with lead, the legacy of heavy industry and lead-based paint.

Some of those same homes and industrial sites have been and continue to be demolished, which can increase the risk of lead exposure via lead dust. 

“Areas where houses have been demolished can be a concern,” said Nick Schroeck, an associate law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. “If lead paint or asbestos may have been in a house, and if it wasn’t properly remediated, potentially you could be exposed to that through the soil.” 

Building a safer garden

As more Detroiters embrace urban gardening & farming, the pernicious issue of lead contamination is a threat to their health and safety. Leaders and activists are working to educate the city’s farmers and gardeners about the dangers of lead in the soil and explore ways to reduce it so that Detroit’s kids can enjoy playing in the garden and consuming fresh, locally grown produce.

Romondo Woods II, a garden development coordinator with Keep Growing Detroit, works to inform residents about soil safety as part of the organization’s Garden Resource Program

“When we go out and do soil tests, we’re looking for mainly lead and other contaminants that would be unhealthy for gardeners and the public to come in contact with,” Romondo said. 

Romondo Woods collecting soil samples at Keep Growing Detroit on Erskine in Eastern Market. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Woods suggests anyone considering tilling their soil for a garden reach out to KGD to test their soil before they start digging. The service is free for those who are a part of KGD’s Garden Resource Program, which is offered to residents of Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck. Outside of the city? Fear not, as you’re still offered this service for $10-15 if you’re able to bring your soil samples to KGD’s farm.

Soils in some regions of the city are more heavily contaminated than others. In 2016, KGD published results of 1,343 soil samples, revealing that 81% of samples overall were below 320 ppm — above that level, KGD does not recommend planting. Romondo urges caution for growers near industrial areas or vacant land where homes have recently or previously been demolished.

“That’s why we recommend before people develop gardens, they get their soil tested and get an awareness of what was there before,” he said.

That’s what Michelle Martina did when she moved into her Jefferson Chalmers home. Before digging a garden, she joined Keep Growing Detroit and got her soil tested. She wasn’t shocked to learn that she had lead in her soil, but was surprised to learn that her daughter’s blood lead level was elevated, measuring 7.7 µg/dL.

“I already knew that it was a possibility because the house we bought needed rehab. It had old windows that had old paint chipping,” she said. â€œWhen my daughter was about six or seven months old, I asked my pediatrician to test her lead level, because they usually don’t do it until they’re one. And he did, and it was high.”

Michelle Martina and her 3-year-old daughter are in their backyard garden in Jefferson Chalmers. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Martina wonders if her soil lead levels were elevated because the home next door, which had burned, had been recently demolished. 

A regimen of vitamin D and iron drops helped bring down her daughters’ lead levels as Martina set about trying to remove sources of lead exposure.

The family replaced all of its windows. Unfortunately, they determined that the family dog was likely tracking lead into the house from the soil outside.

“And then my toddler’s crawling on the floor and putting everything in her mouth as all toddlers do,” said Martina. “We got rid of that dog. We probably won’t get another one because of that.”

Martina has tried low-cost mitigation methods to make her yard safer, like placing cardboard on the grass and covering it with wood chips, hoping that some of the lead will bind to the organic material and become less toxic. Although she would never plant potatoes in her yard, she feels comfortable planting shallow-rooted crops like kale in raised beds. 

Making lead less available

The nonprofit EcoWorks, in partnership with Wayne State University and Earthworks Urban Farm, is conducting a soil lead study to understand how to help residents like Martina reduce their lead exposure from the soils around their homes.

The cost for soil removal and replacement can run above into the tens of thousands — often exceeding the home’s value. Instead of removing contaminated soil outright, the study focuses on converting lead in the soil to forms less likely to cause illness. The research has been underway for four years, testing soil from 142 properties so far across Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park. 

Allison Harris, the director of research and innovation at EcoWorks, said the research aims to find cost-effective methods for reducing bio-available lead in soil. Bioavailable lead is loosely attached to the organic matter in the soil and better represents the actual risk of lead poisoning than the total amount of lead. Understanding how much bioavailable lead is present — and how to reduce it — may be one way for cash-strapped residents who want to mitigate their soil.

“Lead is an element. It can’t break down in the soil, but it can take multiple forms,” said Harris. “And some forms of lead are readily absorbed by the human body, and some are not. And so, what we’ve been trying to do with this project is convert that lead to a less bioavailable form. So if somebody is exposed, they’re less likely to be sick.”

For example, only about half of the lead in the soil of a property with a lead concentration of 400 parts per million, which is the action level for mitigation recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is typically bioavailable, Harris said. 

“So 200 parts per million would be the actual exposure, 200 parts per million would not be part of the exposure,” she said.

Peeling lead paint exposed after siding fell off on April Ross’ home. Photo by Nick Hagen.

By aerating typical Detroit soil samples — puncturing soil to allow breathing space for air, water and nutrients — and incorporating phosphorus from bone meal, the researchers were able to reduce bioavailable lead by 9.8% on average. They also found that increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil — compost and dead plant matter — could reduce bioavailable lead by 8.6% on average. 

Lead can bind to phosphorus in the soil, forming stable pyromorphite that may reduce its bioavailability. “Essentially, you could hypothetically eat it, and your body would not recognize it as a substance whatsoever. It would just pass right through the body,” said Harris, adding that she would not recommend doing that.

Harris and the team are awaiting results to see how effective this process is; they expect results by early fall. While making lead less available won’t entirely solve the problem, Harris hopes it can make a small difference.

“It’s not a silver bullet; it’s just bringing down the overall bioavailability of the lead,” said Harris, “so that the lead that remains in place is less toxic.”

Planet Detroit’s Solving Lead Exposure in Detroit series is underwritten, in part, by the Erb Family Foundation.