The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 26, 2013

Young scientists compete in annual MSSU fair

By Debby Woodin

JOPLIN, Mo. — Sixth-grader Chloe Keller had heard news reports about the Joplin tornado churning up lead and cadmium dust.

So when she was looking for a project idea for the science fair at South Middle School, a list of suggestions that included lead testing caught her attention.

On Tuesday, “How Much Lead Is in Joplin’s Soil?” advanced her to the Missouri Southern State University Regional Science Fair, held at Billingsly Student Center.

Chloe’s was one of 101 projects from 11 schools to compete in the fair’s junior division, made up of students in sixth through eighth grades. There also were 53 projects from students in eight high schools in the senior division, according to fair director Vickie Roettger, who is a biology teacher. Some of the projects were done by teams rather than single students.

“I heard them on the news talking about how lead levels could harm us,” Chloe said, so she started her study to test for the presence of lead by ordering a science test kit from an Internet supplier. Then she took soil samples from several sites in the tornado zone: Cunningham Park, her aunt and uncle’s lot where their house was destroyed in the tornado at 2601 Virginia Ave., the cross where St. Mary’s Catholic Church was destroyed by the tornado, and Garvin Park.

Every place tested negative except Garvin Park at 28th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The Garvin Park test immediately turned dark brown, and that’s enough to really harm someone,” Chloe said.

Both Garvin and Parr Hill parks have been closed since last June as a result of the detection of heavy metals in the soil left by tornado damage.

City officials believe the contamination came from soil or chat that was exposed when trees were uprooted and houses were destroyed.

The Environmental Protection Agency last year awarded Joplin a grant of $2.4 million to pay for cleanups of public properties and yards found to be contaminated.

The city’s health director, Dan Pekarek, said contaminated soil was removed from Garvin Park in November, December and February. He said Chloe’s test may have been taken in January in an area not cleaned yet. There also are possibilities that samples can be taken inches away from each other and show different results, or tests can be unreliable, he said.

Another contestant, Tyler Gray, 13, chose his topic close to home as well.

“My mom was planting a garden and she wondered what kind of potting soil to use, so I decided to test different kinds,” he said. He found that a name-brand soil with fertilizer additives worked better than plain potting soil. His lima bean plants popped up on schedule in 22 days in the name-brand mixture. “The regular soil didn’t even germinate,” Tyler said.

Roettger said this was the 24th year for the MSSU science fair. In past years, the fair was held on Tuesday night with awards announced on Thursday night, but last year the event was conducted as a one-day event, and that seems to have paid off. Entries more than doubled this year. “So we are ecstatic,” Roettger said.

Results of the fair were not yet available late Tuesday afternoon.