Lead in Soil: An Environmental Review

New York City’s parks serve as a peaceful respite from the bustle of urban life. They’re home to sporting events, concerts, and community gardens. But these park safe havens may contain a hidden danger  — a recent study found high levels of lead in the soil of several NYC parks, surpassing the EPA’s soil cleanup value of 400 milligrams of lead per kilogram of soil. Soil samples from Long Island City in Queens and Greenpoint in Brooklyn averaged 540 mg/kg and 450 mg/kg, respectively. 


Though most lead sources have been banned from products, lead from the past continues to be an environmental contaminant today. According to the study, deteriorating lead-based paint found in houses built prior to 1978 is the primary source of lead found in soil. Lead used in transportation and industry, such as lead-based gasoline, can also enter the soil. Lead from gasoline accumulates on buildings and is washed into the soil by the rain. This toxic soil poses a danger to children who may accidentally ingest it while playing, and to anyone who eats food grown in it. Wind and construction also lift the contaminated soil into the air as dust that can be inhaled by passersby. 


Neighborhoods with an industrial history may be at higher risk – A 2019 report found elevated lead levels in the soil of McCarren Park, Greenpoint, near the former site of NJZ Colors. This paint manufacturer was responsible for the pigments used in road paint, and records indicate that the company used 10 million pounds of lead compounds each year.  


Despite the EPA standard, the CDC asserts that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Lead has the capacity to impact every organ system, for both children and adults. According to the CDC, children exposed to lead may be subject to brain and nervous system damage, a decreased rate of growth and development, and problems with learning, hearing, and speech. Lead poisoning in children can cause long-term, irreparable harm. 


This is not the first time that high lead levels have been found in NYC soil. A 2017 study by researchers at Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences examined soil from the backyards of residents of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where children are four times as likely as to have lead poisoning as residents of other NYC neighborhoods. Greenpoint has an industrial history, including being home to the lead smelters of the Non-Ferrous Processing Corporation. The researchers found that 84% of the yards tested exceeded the EPA standard, whereas 14% of public soil tested in the neighborhood was over the soil cleanup value. Soil on private property is also potentially hazardous to residents.  


In 2018, the city launched PUREsoil NYC, a project aimed at replacing polluted soil in community gardens, yards, and other spaces to decrease potential lead exposure. The program uses soil from deep excavations at construction sites and will deliver it to community organizations that request it. But the most recent study suggests that there is still much more to be done to make the soil New Yorkers use and the air they breathe safe from contaminants.  For instance, some believe that the EPA standard should be much lower: The median level of lead in soil around the country is 18 mg/kg and children may have low levels of lead in their blood in regions with 40 or less mg/kg, a level far lower than average across all testing sites in NYC. 


NYLCV, as a member of the NYC Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, will be looking into this issue and discussing it with medical and legal experts to explore policy solutions.

by Sasha Horvath


07.08.22 // AUTHOR: Joshua Klainberg //