The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 20, 2013

426 Joplin yards test high for lead levels after being disturbed by tornado

By Wally Kennedy

JOPLIN, Mo. — If you thought Joplin got all of the lead out, think again.

Chunks of it — some the size of tennis balls — have turned up in residential yards that were disturbed two years ago by the tornado. Typically, the lead is revealed where a tree that was uprooted once stood.

Recently, in the 2800 block of South Pennsylvania Avenue, Leslie Heitkamp looked out over a neatly-mowed front yard where one would not expect to find lead contamination. She then pointed to uneven terrain in two places.

“See that mound over there and this one here? There were once trees here. When these trees were uprooted, they exposed the contaminated soil below,” said Heitkamp, the city’s supervisor for the cleanup of lead-contaminated yards in the tornado zone.

In other instances, mining-related waste known locally as “chat’’ has been exposed where foundations and driveways existed before the tornado. Chat contains traces of lead as well as other heavy metals.

Of the 1,091 yards sampled for lead in Joplin’s disaster zone following the May 22, 2011, tornado, 426 require the excavation of lead-contaminated soil. As of last week, 182 lead-contaminated properties have been excavated, according to Heitkamp. Most of the contamination has been found in bands along both sides of South Main Street where mining took place more than 100 years ago.

She said it’s the places where mining occurred in the south part of Joplin in the 19th and 20th centuries that are the hot spots. The mining fields, which were long ago reclaimed for residential housing, were covered with fresh topsoil to build yards.

“There’s an area from Virginia Avenue to Ohio Avenue and from 26th Street to 30th Street where they leveled off the mine fields,’’ she said. “We’re finding big chunks of lead in that area.

“When I show the raw lead ore to the property owner, they think it’s a pretty rock. They want to show it to their kids,’’ Heitkamp said. “I tell them to not bring it into their house if they find some and don’t let the kids play with it.

“If their kids do play with it, I tell them to make sure they have their kids wash their hands before they eat.’’


This is not the first large-scale cleanup of lead-contaminated yards, playgrounds and parks in Joplin.

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a massive campaign to rid Joplin of yards contaminated by fallout from a lead smelter in northwest Joplin. More than 2,300 yards in that area of town and other parts of the city were excavated by the EPA and the yards were replaced.

Map and information provided by the Jasper County Health Department.


That cleanup was precipitated by a health study that showed 14 percent of the children in Joplin had elevated levels of lead in their blood from ingesting dust and soil contaminated with lead. A public education campaign that stressed hand washing and the importance of blood testing by local pediatricians, among other things, was launched.

After the yards were excavated and replaced with cleaner soil, a subsequent health study showed that the lead-poisoning rate among Joplin’s children had fallen to 2 percent, which at the time was close to the national average.

When the yard removals were in full swing, the EPA also sampled residential yards elsewhere in the city and parts of Jasper County for lead contamination. The testing included parts of Joplin that were in the 2011 tornado zone where contaminated soil is now being removed today.

Mark Doolan, who directed the yard-removal project for the EPA, said, “If you look at the maps of registered mines at the Missouri Department of Geology and Land Survey, you will see where the whole area from Connecticut Avenue to Main Street (in southern Joplin) was mined.

“In the 1920s and ’30s, they covered up the chat and built on top of it. That’s why we did not find any contamination when we looked for it back in the ’90s,’’ he said. “When the tornado came through uprooting trees and tearing up foundations, that exposed lead that had been buried for 75 to 100 years.’’

When the EPA launched its first yard cleanup campaign in Joplin, research showed that lead poisoning in children could permanently damage a child’s cognitive abilities, reducing a child’s IQ by as much as two to three points.

Lead poisoning in children is measured in micrograms per deciliter of blood. A child was treated for lead exposure if tests showed at least 10 micrograms of lead in a deciliter of blood. Since then, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has lowered that threshold to 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter.

“What the ATSDR is saying is that there is virtually no safe level for lead exposure in children,’’ Doolan said.


With the yard removals in the 1990s, the EPA analyzed the soil with an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to determine the degree of contamination in a yard. If any one sample in a yard exceeded 800 parts of lead per million, the yard was remediated.

With the yard removals in the tornado zone, the city has upped the action level.

“They’re using 400 parts per million,’’ Doolan said. “It’s a more stringent sampling strategy than we used in the ’90s.’’

The Jasper County Health Department also uses an XRF spectrometer to determine the level of contamination in a yard in the tornado zone. The department then comes back and retests the yard when the replacement soil has been installed.

Heitkamp said contamination involving chat often ranges from 400 to 600 parts per million of lead in yards disturbed by the tornado and subsequent cleanup. Chat often was used in crawl spaces beneath homes. The tornado exposed that source of contamination when houses were blown off their foundations.

But in other parts of the tornado zone, uprooted trees have brought to the surface lead-laced soils that have contamination levels ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 parts per million. In the area of Parr Hill Park, contamination levels ranged from 2,000 to 3,000 parts per million. That area has since been remediated and the park recently reopened.

The highest contamination to date was found near where the Hampshire Terrace Apartments are being constructed at 20th Street and New Hampshire Avenue. A spot there showed contamination at 50,000 parts per million.

“They must have sampled raw lead there,’’ Doolan said.


Once contamination is found, a contractor working for the city excavates the dirt to a maximum depth of 18 inches. New dirt is brought in to replace the dirt that is removed.

Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department, said the yards are being remediated with grant money from the EPA. So far, about $3.5 million has been awarded.

“We have got a shade over $1 million left. We’re watching it closely through the end of the calendar year to see if we will have enough,’’ he said. “We have had discussions with the EPA in which they have indicated additional funding will be available as we need it in the future.’’

For the city and the EPA, the unknown at this point is “how many yards are out there? There could be 1,300 to 1,400 vacant lots out there,’’ Pekarek said. “With 39 percent of the lots testing positive for lead, we could have 400 to 500 lots that are eligible in the tornado zone.’’

Testing is required on any property in the tornado zone where children could be present — such as a home or child care center — before a building permit can be issued by the city. To be eligible for yard cleanup, property owners must have sustained damage of at least 50 percent of the value of the property, have severe soil disturbance, or be building an addition that will require soil excavation.

The city of Duquesne, east of Joplin, did not require such testing in its tornado zone. Officials believe that mining in Duquesne was sparse based on mining records.    

Mayor Denny White said, “We had some mining gouges out here, but we never had any significant mining activity in Duquesne except along our western city limits with Joplin near 24th, 25th and 26th streets. That’s a commercial area now.

“We have had five or six yards tested for lead in order for the property owners to get government grants. They all passed just fine. No lead at all.’’

Soil tests can be arranged by calling the Jasper County Health Department at 417-358-3111.


After the contaminated yards in northwest Joplin were removed in the 1990s, Joplin still had cases of blood poisoning in children. Almost all of those cases stemmed from exposure to lead-based paint in Joplin’s older housing stock.

When the tornado struck, Joplin had just over 23,000 housing units, with the vast majority — nearly 76 percent — being single-family homes. The tornado destroyed nearly 7,000 of those homes.

Lead was banned as an ingredient in residential paint in the United States in 1978 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission after research showed it was the largest single contributor to lead poisoning in children.

According to a recently released study by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which sent a team of engineers to Joplin to study the damage field, nearly 74 percent of the homes in Joplin were constructed before 1979.

It is uncertain how the removal of so many homes with lead-based paint and lead plumbing from Joplin’s housing stock will influence the number of Joplin children who experience lead poisoning in the future.

Tony Moehr, director of the Jasper County Health Department, said local pediatricians routinely test children for lead poisoning if the child lives in a home that was constructed before 1978. Another factor in deciding whether a blood sample should be drawn is whether the child lives near a former mining site.

About 2,400 to 2,600 children are tested for lead exposure annually in the county. The testing is not specific to Joplin.

In 2009, Jasper County had an elevation rate for lead in children of 0.85 percent of those tested. In 2010, it increased to 1.26 percent. In 2011, it fell to 0.46 percent. In 2012, it was 1.09 percent.

“It’s really difficult to spot a trend because we do not have numbers that are specific to Joplin,’’ Moehr said. “At this point, our testing shows that the exposure rate has not changed at all.’’