SAN DIEGO — Researchers have discovered the sites of 430 former lead smelting factories spread among 35 states, most apparently unknown to government regulatory officials despite the risk they may harbor hazardous levels of the toxic metal.
The sites, some adjacent to residential areas, all housed factories where lead was recycled from automobile batteries, wheel weights and cable housing between 1931 and 1964.
William Eckel, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist, said he found a total of 640 sites by combing through old industrial directories. When he crosschecked those sites against federal and state databases, he said, he discovered at least 430 were unknown to either federal or state officials.
“They’re not in the business of doing this kind of research,” said Eckel, who spent six years on the independent project for his doctoral thesis in environmental science and public policy.
Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Chris Paulitz said the agency had not yet reviewed Eckel’s report.
“It’s impossible for us to comment on a study we haven’t even seen,” Paulitz said.
In eight sites in Baltimore and Philadelphia where Eckel did cursory testing of the soil, he found three had lead levels that exceeded those allowed by federal law for industrial sites. Seven had levels that exceeded the residential maximum.
“These are not places that have gone away,” Eckel said. “In some places, the contaminants remain.”
Lead poisoning can cause a variety of ailments, ranging from lowered IQs and learning disabilities to seizures and death. Children can ingest or inhale the toxin if they come into contact with lead-fouled soil.
The sites likely remained unknown because lead smelting operations housed there had ceased before the advent of regulatory bodies like the EPA, formed in 1970.
The sites found by Eckel include locations in most large U.S. cities, including Boston; Buffalo, N.Y.; Chicago; Dallas; Denver; Detroit; Houston; Los Angeles; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
While many are in what remain today strictly industrial areas, others are not. A survey done by a reporter of a half dozen of the sites located in and around Los Angeles found in some cases the former factories had been converted to other uses, including a seafood restaurant and artist lofts.
Eckel stressed that those sites and the hundreds of others are not necessarily hazardous, but should be investigated. In many cases removing any contaminated soil, or simply paving over it, can reduce any potential risk, even where industrial buildings have been adapted for new uses, said Ron Baker, a spokesman for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
“You don’t expect someone to show up at a seafood restaurant with a back hoe,” Baker said.
In Philadelphia, however, Eckel found a site that had been occupied by the North American Smelting Co., apparently for more than a century before moving to Delaware in the 1970s. The site, now an empty lot, lies across the street from a residential neighborhood. When he tested the lot’s soil, Eckel said, he found lead concentrations that far exceeded the level permissible for a residential area.
“I wouldn’t want those levels in my yard for sure,” said Eckel, who did the research with his thesis adviser at George Mason University, Gregory Foster, and Michael Rabinowitz, a geochemist with the Woods Hole, Mass. Marine Biological Laboratory.
The results, presented Monday at the 221st meeting of the American Chemical Society, are published in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health.