River ward residents want city, others to protect kids from lead in soil

Rachel Kaminski holds her daughter, Emma, 2, outside their Fishtown home on June 30, 2017. Rachel and other residents have been reaching out to lawmakers about lead in the soil.

Parents in Fishtown and Kensington are calling and emailing local lawmakers, brainstorming at crammed community meetings, and grilling developers and construction crews.

They want to make sure their children are protected and they’re demanding help from public officials in the wake of a recent Inquirer and Daily News investigative report about dangerous levels of lead in soil in their neighborhoods.

Fourteen of the city’s 36 former lead smelters once operated in these river ward neighborhoods, polluting the soil. The newspapers tested bare soil in 114 locations in parks, playgrounds, and yards. Nearly three out of four had hazardous levels of lead. And now, a full-tilt development boom is potentially churning up lead that lay dormant for decades.

The “Toxic City” investigation also found at least 24 instances in which construction crews failed to take simple dust-control precautions, such as spraying soil with water to hold down dust, and that the city did a poor job of enforcing regulations that require builders to control contamination.

Reporters also found hazardous levels of lead dust on the front stoops of homes and on the playground surface at Shissler Recreation Center at a time when construction workers were digging foundations nearby.

As a measure of parents’ concern, resident Bobbie Ann Tilkens-Fisher, who is pregnant with her first child, formed a Facebook group, “Get the Lead OUT: Riverwards Philadelphia,” three days after the June 18 article. By Friday, more than 600 people had joined the online group.

At a recent meeting of 60 residents at a Fishtown church, Rachel Kaminski, mother of a 2-year-old, urged residents to call their local lawmakers. “If the city doesn’t fix this, a lot of people who moved here are not going to stay,” Kaminski said. “We have to hold their feet to the fire.”

The public health department said children in other Philadelphia zip codes, particularly those with higher poverty and rundown homes, are at higher risk for developing elevated lead levels in their blood.

“There is just no credible evidence that the kids living in this area, either because of construction (which again is separate from demo[lition]) or the former smelter sites, are at unique risk,” city spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said Friday in an email.

Guidance from the city health department does note that “people who live near a former smelting site can be at higher risk for lead poisoning.”

Currently, developers are not routinely required to test soil for contaminants before digging near brownfields or former smelter sites. State and federal environmental protection agencies oversee cleanup and development within known contaminated sites, but have no oversight of land outside those boundaries.

Neil Shader, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency would support legislation requiring developers to test all sites “where there could be unidentified contamination” before excavation. The DEP would also support a law mandating soil testing and disclosure by the seller as part of real estate transactions, he said.

Mayor Kenney and city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley recently acknowledged the city could do a better job of enforcing dust-control rules and will ask City Council to enact laws to better protect residents from hazards posed by demolishing old buildings with lead paint.

Deteriorating lead paint remains the primary source of childhood lead poisoning, accounting for roughly 70 percent of elevated blood lead levels in children nationwide. That leaves nearly one-third of cases linked to contaminated soil and water, according to a 2008 study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

At least three families in the 19125 zip code said their children had high levels of lead in their blood caused by soil alone.

Farley said demolition, not excavation, can pose a risk to children nearby. “There’s no evidence I can find that excavation is going to increase the risk of exposure. It’s certainly a theoretical risk,” Farley said as a recent guest, along with reporters, on WHYY’s Radio Times.

Residents have flooded city leaders with phone calls and emails in recent days. Kaminski even tweeted at Kenney, asking what will be done about contaminated soil and toxic dust.

Kenney tweeted back: “Since children must ingest lead to get sick, most important thing all can do is emphasize hand washing, take shoes off inside home.”

In a follow-up tweet, Kenney wrote: “Data shows kids in these areas don’t have higher lead levels than nearby neighborhoods. Working on demolition legislation to further protect.”

Kaminski said she was unhappy with his response. “It’s like saying, `Well, this is the way you have to live.’ ”

In the past two weeks, several parents have had their kids’ blood tested for lead, including Fishtown resident Kim Geisler. Her 9-month-old daughter’s result came back at 7 micrograms per deciliter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says public-health intervention should take place at a lead level of 5.

“It was really, really shocking and disheartening,” Geisler said.

Even at levels below 5, the neurotoxin can cause impulsivity, hyperactivity, and diminished IQ in children, research shows.

Geisler said she was blindsided by her daughter’s blood result because her home had been gutted and renovated a decade ago and recent tests on surfaces throughout the house showed no lead dust, with the exception of one sample taken from the basement floor.

Geisler said her daughter has no access to the basement and the floor at the top of the basement steps tested clean.

Before her daughter’s birth, Geisler said, she had 18 inches of contaminated soil stripped from her backyard and replaced with “organic topsoil.” Her water system filters out heavy metals and chemicals from all faucets in her house, she said.

She now believes the only possible source of lead came from three adjacent demolition and construction projects this past year.

Geisler recently wrote to a contractor, poised to dig into a Blair Street lot abutting her backyard, and urged him to take dust-control measures. He called her Friday to say that he would put up a protective screen and wet the soil before and during excavation.

Geisler said she and other residents don’t understand why Farley and the mayor don’t see lead-tainted soil as a serious problem.

“To say that soil doesn’t cause a problem — then why is there a federal limit for the level of lead in soil at playgrounds?” she asked.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems any soil with lead above 400 parts per million (ppm) to be hazardous for children to play in. Reporters found levels above that limit in bare patches of soil near the pool at Cione Park and in the soil at Palmer Park.

The EPA has yet to reply to questions about the newspapers’ findings.

Rina Patel has 65 children enrolled at her Fishtown day-care center, My Bright Beginnings. Since the newspaper report, she said, the children are not allowed to play in outdoor dirt. She instructed staffers not to let kids walk by ongoing construction.

“I felt for our families,” Patel said. “We had to come up with a plan to keep children as safe as possible.”

On June 20, more than 100 residents attended a meeting of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, where several questioned two developers explaining forthcoming projects.

“I know you are going to build — it’s coming,” said one resident, “but what are you going to do to protect the children?”

Residents were most concerned about a plan to build 71 apartments and an underground garage at the site of a former auto-repair shop and used-car lot on Girard Avenue. It would abut the Fishtown Recreation Center.

Trying to alleviate their concerns, Rustin Ohler, of Harman Deutsch Architecture, said an environmental study of the soil “showed no contaminants.”

The study has been filed with the state DEP, he said. A reporter later asked Harman Deutsch and the project developer, GY Properties, for a copy of the study. Neither returned calls.

The DEP’s Jo Anne O’Hara, who handles requests to review files for the agency’s records management section, said “we don’t have any files” related to the Girard Avenue site.

Ohler did not return two phone calls seeking comment.