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New lead contamination cleanup method to be tested in New Orleans

Published May 02, 2011 | By Masako Hirsch

Instead of having to remove the soil containing dangerous levels of lead, Andrew Hunt, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, has received a $498,138 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to examine the effectiveness of using a phosphate called Apatite II to treat lead contamination.

In the method used by Hunt, the phosphate dissolves slowly and binds with lead in the soil to form an insoluble mineral called pyromorphite.

"What we're trying to do is transform the lead" so that it is no longer toxic, Hunt said.

Lead exposure can be particularly harmful to infants and young children, whose neurological systems are the most susceptible to its effects, and can lead to behavioral problems and learning and developmental disabilities. They are also the most likely to swallow lead by putting unwashed hands and objects into their mouths.

If pyromorphite is ingested, however, it should pass harmlessly through a child's system, Hunt said.

"The exposure risk is reduced because the mineral is insoluble, so it doesn't dissolve in the child's stomach," he said.

The study will compare Apatite II to other phosphates over a period of two years and determine how effective they are in remediating the soil.

Apatite II has been tested and proven effective before, but this will be the first time it's tried in an urban area, Hunt said. Many urban areas have especially high levels of lead in the soil because of decades of use of lead-based paints and leaded gasoline.

Hunt decided to perform the study in New Orleans because of his work with Howard Mielke, a research professor with the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research who has studied lead contamination in the city.

Hunt was also approached by conceptual artist Mel Chin, whose Fundred Dollar Bill Project aims to collect $300 million in hand-drawn interpretations of $100 bills to take to Congress, in exchange for $300 million in real money to fight lead contamination in New Orleans.

Although the first part of the project targets human expression, Chin said he also wants to bring about a scientific solution. "When I heard Dr. Hunt had some of this capacity to understand this, we joined forces, " Chin said.

The new approach may prove cheaper than the most common method of lead remediation, which can involve costly soil removal and transportation to waste sites, Hunt said.

It should also be more environmentally friendly than other phosphates, which can wash off into water and cause algae blooms, because it is not as easily soluble, he said.

After the study begins this summer, Hunt will examine lead levels every six months, with some significant data possibly available in a year. The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is helping to find three vacant lots for the study, but only one has been chosen so far, he said.

"We're really hoping it's going to be a success," Hunt said.

Chin, who is continuing to work on the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, said he hopes New Orleans can become a model for lead remediation.

"We have to re-imagine New Orleans as a city of rescue, " he said. "A city that has a solution that no one else was brave enough to test."

Source: NOLA
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