Lead Exposure and the Amityville Effect: How Philadelphia Leaves Residents Vulnerable to Lead Exposure and Poisoning

 By Jack Grauer

You know how there’s all these movies about a family moving into a house on an ancient burial ground or something similar, and then ghosts get all mad and torment them? Americans can’t get enough of these, “Oh no, we’ve upset nature’s delicate stasis and now nature spirits are coming to get us,” kinds of stories. 

 Specifically, an example of this trope seems to have developed around lead exposure in Philly. That’s fine. But it also might be skewing how media and government systems understand and deal with a serious problem.

Chronic exposure to lead hurts the brain and nervous system development and causes a host of learning and behavioral problems. It’s especially harmful to kids, and Philly kids have high blood lead levels.

The line from local and federal governments, academics and national and local news is that lead paint turns to breathable dust over time in homes built and painted before anyone knew lead paint harms people. Older homes also have older plumbing, and older plumbing components sometimes contain lead.

Lead also leeches into soil over time from lead smelting factories that are improperly sealed after closure and demolition. New construction churns contaminated soil to the surface. Increased demand for urban housing has lead to higher population densities near and on the former smelting sites.

This all sounds plausible. And this picture of things surely sells newspaper and website space. There’s a tempting story to tell here about gentrifiers who lack historical knowledge about their surroundings and the prospect of that lack of knowledge haunting them.

There’s also this idea of gentrifiers and their affinity for big old houses that harken back to a time when people valued craftsmanship, etc., and how those big old houses return their occupants’ affinities by slowly poisoning them. 

Again, it’s all slick and literary. But it also might not be the whole explanation of the problem of lead exposure and a misconstrual of who it effects.

If dingy houses and schools and shuttered and demolished factories accounted for high blood lead levels in kids, you’d expect to see the most elevated blood-lead levels to surface in soil in Kensington, where most of the now-defunct lead smelters operated. If lead paint was the main driver, you’d expect to see the most elevated blood lead levels in an area like Germantown, which contains a high concentration of old residential construction. 

But that’s not what we see in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s dataset on cases of elevated child blood levels. We don’t see the highest levels in the areas with the oldest housing stock, which are most likely to have lead paint in them. We don’t see them in residential areas near or on top of demolished lead smelting plants.

Rather, the highest levels surround North Broad St. in North-Central Philadelphia. This doesn’t bolster confidence in the dominant theories about what drives high blood lead levels in Philly. The Partisan requested current blood lead exposure data from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health in the hope of finding a better explanation.

The latest report available from the Department’s website summarizes the rate of lead exposure in the city as a whole through 2017. Data that specifies which areas have higher rates of lead exposure  cuts off at 2015. 

Via private email correspondence, the Department initially delayed and suggested the release of more up-to-date data could violate the confidentiality of survey participants’ medical records. The Partisan supplied a lengthy explanation of how we intend to use the data for this article in accordance with a request by the Department. The Department has not since responded. 

The Partisan tried unsuccessfully to test soil from the areas in question on our own. We collected 43 surface soil samples from sites across North Philadelphia.

A Rutgers University laboratory agreed to analyze those samples with a spectrometer to asses their lead content. But the lab stopped corresponding with The Partisan after we told them we had the samples available.

The lonely soil samples remain on file with the author. Email me if you’d like to take a look. We’ll have a Philly-soil-eating party and then test our algebra skills in 30 years.

This map shows the locations of homes built between 1700 and 1912, likely to have lead paint in them.  Census tracts with the darkest purple represent larger percentages of kids with elevated blood levels. Sources: Philadelphia Office of Property Assessment and Philadelphia Health Department. 

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