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November 14, 2022

KIB is addressing lead contamination, and you can, too

By: Jeremy Kranowitz

Toxic lead contamination is a scary topic that sometimes creeps into our news headlines, like it did with the crisis in Flint, Michigan, in 2014. Lead exposure can affect all of us, especially children, throughout the year, and high levels of exposure can be incredibly damaging to our health.  The good news is that there are some simple actions Keep Indianapolis Beautiful is taking to lower the levels of lead exposure in our community, and you can be a part of the solution, too!

Lead has been used for centuries – in fact, the chemical abbreviation for lead, Pb, is derived from the Latin word “plumbum,” which means “lead pipe.” The ancient Romans used lead to make water pipes, and their approach even yielded the modern word “plumber.”

In older cities across the U.S., there are a number of ways that people are exposed to lead. People were rightly alarmed by the tragic story in Flint, where mismanagement of the city’s water system allowed the aging pipes to corrode, exposing 99,000 residents to high levels of lead. Here in Indianapolis, Citizens Energy Group has done a good job removing and replacing lead from older pipes in their system, but the pipes under people’s front lawns that connect to the city water system can still have lead. That means the problem isn’t completely solved yet.

Worse than lead in water pipes is the lead that is in our surface soils. Lead in soil can come from a variety of sources: it could be dust from external lead-based paint on older homes; remnants of emissions from industrial practices, like making car batteries or ammunition; or it could even be the result of old fumes from leaded gas stations that existed decades ago.

All that lead dust settles onto the soil, and because it’s heavy, most of it stays where it lands, until something picks it up and carries it into our homes. It could be on our bare feet, on the soles of our shoes, on our pets’ paws, or on the vegetables that we try to grow in contaminated soil.

What is KIB doing about it? We partner with scientists at IUPUI to test the surface soil in some of our GreenSpace projects, sites that typically start out as vacant or abandoned lots. Often, we don’t know the full history of the property, and we can only know at a macro level whether we suspect the lead is high or low. In reality, it varies quite a lot from one block to the next, and even from one side of the lot to the other.

If lead is found to be high on a lot, we have a few options. One option would be to dig up all the soil and carry it away to a safe disposal site. Unfortunately, this approach is both more expensive, and it can have worse outcomes, stirring up lots of lead that would not have been mobilized otherwise.  The better option is to find a way to cover the soil with new clean layers. These can be new layers of mulch and trees; new gravel or concrete paths; new shrubs; raised vegetable beds; or new benches and sitting areas.

We create greenspaces around the city because it has tremendous benefits to a neighborhood. We create new vibrant community gathering places. We create places for nature to thrive, with pollinator-friendly plants and trees. And now, we’re also showing that our greenspaces can reduce lead exposure. The benefits just keep on coming!

If there’s no greenspace in your neighborhood, and you’re worried about lead levels in your yard, you can get a test kit from IUPUI for free.

What can you do about lead contamination? You can take action, just like KIB! If there are some hot spots in your yard, you can simply cover them up with new plants or mulch. If you or your children are playing outside, take your shoes off immediately as you walk in the door. Or, if you’ve been outside barefoot, or your dog has been running with muddy or dusty paws, simply wash those dirty feet with soap and water. Or, you can help us create greenspaces and lower lead levels around our city by volunteering or making a donation.

Together, we can make Indy a greener, cleaner and healthier place to live, work and play.

Categories: Education, Engaged Citizens, News & Features