Water Wednesday: Why It’s More Than Lead Exposure

By Chrislyn Johnson

On a cold winter day in early 2008, when I worked for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), it felt as if snow could fall any minute when my team pulled up to a family’s lot in southwestern Missouri. The sight I took in was depressing. Three dilapidated mobile homes stood on mostly hard-packed and bare soil, with very little vegetation. A pen of about 20 chickens, scrambling over one another, rustled from the far end of the property. In a bare wire cage, a lone rabbit tried to shield itself from the wind by huddling against the edge nearest a post. The occupied mobile homes were held together with makeshift repairs. Scrap cars, piles of recyclables, and two abandoned mobile homes sat toward the back of the lot. This is a common sight in rural Missouri and much of America.

Past and Present Lead Mining, EPA Lead Strategy Paper Maps, 2012. Map by Valerie Wilder, MDNR. (Click to access full-size map.)

Past and Present Lead Mining, EPA Lead Strategy Paper Maps, 2012. Map by Valerie Wilder, MDNR. (Click to access full-size map.)

I took in this bleak picture in a short time, as I worked to test the family’s water and soil for lead. This was part of a joint EPA-MDNR Superfund project team that tested for lead contamination in drinking water and soil. The area was chosen based on locations of historic mining areas in southwestern Missouri. Lead mining has a long history in Missouri, but lead exposure often occurs in areas without any mining.

We sampled the property by first screening the soil with a handheld XRF (X-ray fluorescence) meter. If the readings were above a certain threshold, a sample of the soil was bagged and labeled to be further evaluated under controlled laboratory conditions. Water samples were taken from drinking water faucets and placed in Nalgene containers, also labeled, and then placed on ice in coolers. The entire sampling event at the property took approximately one hour.

Lead is a soft, corrosion-resistant metal used for a host of products and applications from manufacturing glass and paint to joining metallic-like electrical components and pipes. People are often exposed to lead at home from deteriorating lead-based paint. Children are at a higher risk of exposure since they may play with or mouth objects such as windowsills, doors, and stair railings and banisters. If exposed, this can lead to lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning in children can cause many issues, including behavioral problems, developmental delays, hyperactivity, hearing loss, and organ damage. Adult symptoms can include persistent fatigue, insomnia, irritability, and loss of appetite to name a few. A simple blood test can determine if you are at risk. Without the right resources, people may suffer from many problems.

Because of privacy protections, I never found out if that Missouri family received aid in the form of soil removal or public drinking water access, but I often think of them when I reflect about why I do the kind of work I do. They were a family with limited resources and information to protect themselves and their children’s health. They were not unlike others in the area, in need of assistance and education about how to protect themselves from lead exposure and the vital difference that uncontaminated water can make in their lives.

On that winter’s day in 2008, our sampling team provided only one piece of the puzzle, but every contribution was important. We helped educate and improve the health of the residents and their environment by performing work with care and respect for those we were assisting.

Local governments and EPA provide many services to help minimize environmental threats and health problems. I’m relatively new at EPA and I look forward to coming to work every day. By working here, I get to help others live healthier and more enjoyable lives.

About the Author: Chrislyn Johnson is a Life Scientist with EPA Region 7’s Water, Wetlands, and Pesticides Division. She holds degrees in biology and photography from the University of Central Missouri. Chrislyn loves all things nature.

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