Lead contamination in Flint, Michigan raises questions about New Orleans lead levels

Robert Marchini

The ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan has lead contamination on the minds of many people across the country. Lead is a toxic element that was often used in building materials, gasoline and glass. It is still used in lab shielding, car batteries and ammunition. While lead in the water supply has left many concerned, Dr. Felicia Rabito of Tulane’s Department of Epistemology says the most common way people are exposed to lead is from peeling lead-containing paint. 

“The data is pretty clear: its paint,” Rabito said. “Deteriorating paint in the home contaminates dust in the house or in the soil outside, which children ingest.”

Tulane University spokesman Michael Strecker said that Tulane takes active steps to ensure students, faculty and staff are not exposed to lead paint. Strecker said Tulane follows the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines to encapsulate what little existing lead paint there is on campus. Tulane tests all surfaces for lead before beginning demolition or renovations: if lead is found, Tulane uses lead-safe practices to remove the lead without exposing personnel or contaminating the environment. Tulane’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety (which manages lead, among other hazardous materials, on Tulane’s campus) and the facilities department both declined to comment to The Hullabaloo, referring all questions to Mr. Strecker. 

After lead’s toxicity was noted, the U.S. government banned it in many applications: it was banned in paint in 1977, and in automobile gasoline in 1996. Rabito described the phase-out of lead-containing products as “a major public health success story,” and that reducing the exposure of children to lead reduces damaging effects to IQ or impulsivity. She noted that the laws did not require removal of lead-containing products that were already used, however, and that people are still exposed to lead by existing paint. 

“It’s a mistake to say that lead is not a problem today,” Rabito said. 

Rabito’s research found something quite unusual about the populations exposed to lead in New Orleans. Rabito said that in most major U.S. cities, the demographic most commonly exposed to lead tends to be of lower income: they live in older housing, and they may do DIY repairs or be simply unable to afford repairs. This leads to the paint becoming dilapidated and people being exposed to the lead. In New Orleans, however, the highest proportion of blood levels of lead is in higher income areas, like Uptown. The reason for this is a commonly cited one in New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina. 

Rabito said this was because poorer residents of New Orleans were not able to move back into the city immediately after the storm, and in many cases their houses were damaged beyond repair and were razed. On the other hand, wealthier residents’ homes were not as severely damaged and they had funds for repairs. Further, wealthier residents’ homes tended to be older. The rush to rebuild in the wake of the storm meant those who were renovating often did not use lead-safe practices, while those building anew used new materials that do not contain lead. Rabito said it was this unique social phenomenon related to Katrina that caused the unusual change in exposure, where the difference in rebuilding practices after Katrina have exposed more wealthy, and fewer poor, residents of New Orleans to lead. 

Katrina caused another effect similar to the crisis in Flint: the contamination of drinking water. The main cause of lead contamination of water is corrosion of old lead pipes used to supply water around the city. If water is flowing through the pipes, it has very little chance to pick up contamination from inside the pipe, but it does pick up lead if it sits in the pipe for a long period of time as it will cause the pipe to corrode. This happened all over the city as people began using the water system across the city after the storm, and sparked a crisis in 2008. 

The EPA specifies a lead level of 15 parts per billion in the top 10 percent of households sampled as the point where local authorities must take action to reduce lead in the water supply. The initial report on the 2008 crisis found that the top 10 percent on the East Bank had a lead level of 20 ppb, and the top sample had a level of 287 ppb. For some comparison, the top 10 percent in Flint is 27 ppb, and the top sample was 158 ppb. The city embarked to find the cause of this contamination, and the final report, issued in September 2009, found that many of the sites sampled were unoccupied or undergoing renovations related to Katrina damage. A change in sampling found a new top 10 percentage of 14ppb, and the highest sample was 31 ppb. The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board advised residents to flush out water that may have become contaminated. 

While lead levels in city water have continued to decline as the system is flushed, they are still somewhat high due to the continued use of old lead water lines. The 2014 water quality report, the most recent available, found a top 10 percent reading of 6 ppb in the East Bank. The Virginia Tech researchers in Flint describe a reading of 5 ppb as indicative “that the city has a very serious problem with lead in water.” 

The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board did not respond to The Hullabaloo’s request for comment.