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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: What are “ghost factories?” – Philip Walker, Hartford, CT

Unsafe levels of lead contaminate soil in hundreds of neighborhoods around the U.S. where lead smelting facilities operated between the 1930s and 1960s. Children under the age of six are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. Pictured: Rusty remains at an old lead smelting mill.

Photo credit: Simon Bowen

In April 2012, USA TODAY published a series entitled “Ghost Factories,” a report on an investigation into lead contaminated soil in hundreds of neighborhoods around the U.S. where lead factories once operated. The investigation addressed the lack of action taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test and clean up these sites despite having been warned in 2001 about the dangerous levels of lead contamination around the areas of these old facilities.

The factories, which used a process called smelting to melt down lead, were in operation from the 1930s until the 1960s when they began to shut down. While the factories themselves may now be gone, their toxic legacy remains, as they have left behind significant amounts of poisonous lead particles in surrounding soils. The lead particles are particularly dangerous for children who live and play in these areas. “Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years,” reports the Mayo Clinic, adding that even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. “Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development [and] at very high levels…can be fatal.”

Environmental scientist William Eckel warned government officials of the dangers of old lead factories in his research article “Discovering Unrecognized Lead-Smelting Sites by Historical Methods,” which was published in the American Journal of Public Health in April of 2001. Eckel used EPA databases along with lead industry directories to compile a list of more than 400 possible factory sites around the country that may have been unknown or forgotten over time. In an effort to create some urgency for federal regulators, he paid to have the soil around eight of the sites tested and all but one exceeded the EPA’s hazard level for residential areas. More recent soil tests done by USA TODAY revealed that all 21 areas that were examined in 13 states had potentially dangerous enough lead levels that children should not be playing in that dirt. This meant, of course, that cleanups of these sites had not been done.

In response to Eckel’s findings and the USA TODAY series, EPA has initiated work with states to survey the majority of the sites on the 2001 list, although records for many of the affected areas are incomplete. “I am convinced we have addressed the highest-risk sites,” reports Elizabeth Southerland, director of assessment and remediation for the EPA’s Superfund program. She says her agency is open to reassessing sites that may need another look thanks to more recent information uncovered by USA TODAY.

Unfortunately, ongoing federal budget woes mean that resources are severely limited. In fact, the EPA lacks funds to complete even previously scheduled Superfund remediation projects. In the meantime, individual homeowners can determine whether or not they live near a former lead smelter and can apply pressure to local authorities accordingly. USA TODAY has posted a free online map to help people figure out exactly where the danger zones might be.

CONTACTS: USA TODAY Ghost Factories, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/lead-poisoning; “Discovering Unrecognized Lead-Smelting Sites by Historical Methods”, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1446633/pdf/11291377.pdf.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: I’m planning a major home renovation and want to include as many green-friendly features as possible. Where do I begin to look? – Matthew Glaser, Queens, NY

There has never been a better time to renovate green, given the abundance of Earth-friendly building material choices as well as contractors well-versed in energy- and resource-efficiency.

Photo credit: Stockmonkeys.com

There has never been a better time to renovate green, given the abundance of Earth-friendly building material choices as well as contractors well-versed in energy- and resource-efficiency. Many homeowners don’t realize that they can save money in the long run, despite the up front costs, by choosing materials and strategies that will lower utility bills and reduce maintenance and replacement costs moving forward.

For starters, look for building materials that contain post-consumer or post-industrial recycled content that can be easily recycled later. Also, make sure the materials are sustainably sourced—such as wood certified as sustainably harvested by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). And try to minimize the distance any building materials need to travel to help reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.

In areas of the renovation that are not a complete tear-down and re-build, tighten things up by plugging holes, patching or replacing roofing or siding as needed and adding weather-stripping around doors and windows. Also, switch out older single-pane windows with more efficient modern double or triple pane styles. This can pay for itself in energy savings within just a few years while improving comfort. Also replace or add insulation to walls, attics and other spaces to keep heat inside and cold out (and vice-versa). And you can save lots of energy by swapping out old appliances with newer models that qualify for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar label. Such appliances must be 20-30 percent more energy efficient than standard models, and will reduce not only your carbon footprint but also utility bills.

For guidance on how to renovate as sustainably as possible, check out the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Green Home Guide, a free online resource which bases its recommendations on its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines for certifying “green” buildings. This site allows users to ask an experienced contractor questions on sustainable materials and techniques or find green home professionals nearby qualified for larger green renovation jobs.

Another valuable resource is the REGREEN website, a joint project of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and the USGBC, which offers case studies for green remodeling projects, interactive tools and basic guidelines written so even do-it-yourselfer can understand. A REGREEN Strategy Generator widget can provide tailored tactics for specific green remodeling projects. “For example, if you enter the parameters ‘bathroom’ and ‘water efficiency’, the widget might suggest the installation of faucet aerators and low-water-use showerheads,” reports USGBC.

Talking over projects and options with a design professional at a retail green building supply store like Green Depot, with locations in 10 states, can also help homeowners source cutting edge materials that will save energy and money in the long run. Green Building Supply, which offers an extensive free “online learning center,” will ship a wide range of green building materials anywhere in the U.S.

CONTACTS: FSC, www.fsc.org; EnergyStar, www.energystar.gov; LEED Green Home Guide, greenhomeguide.com/program/leed-for-homes; REGREEN, Green Depot, www.greendepot.com; Green Building Supply, www.greenbuildingsupply.com.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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