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New Orleans officials on Friday shuttered a newly rebuilt Bywater playground and ordered a new round of soil samples after recent tests commissioned by parents showed high levels of lead in the dirt.
Markey Park will remain closed until results come back from soil samples sent to a lab, said Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
If the findings indicate dangerous levels of toxins, the city will move quickly to remediate the area, said Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the city’s health commissioner.
How officials would pay for the work is not clear, but DeSalvo said it would be done. One method would be to cover the contaminated soil with an impermeable barrier and top it with a layer of fresh soil and sod, she said.
The city also has hired Paul Lo, a local environmental health specialist, to take samples from other parks and playgrounds, DeSalvo said. The testing schedule will be posted publicly soon, she said.
Parents whose children play at Markey Park became concerned when routine tests by pediatricians showed higher-than-normal levels of lead in their children’s blood. They formed an educational group, NolaUnleaded, and consulted with Howard Mielke of the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research.
Mielke’s research showed eye-popping lead levels in the dirt around Markey Park, where some of the kids play nearly every day, said parent Claudia Copeland, who is a molecular biologist. The levels were about 30 times the recommended figures.
Exposure to lead, a neurotoxin known to disrupt development of the brain and central nervous system, is especially dangerous for young children.
In 2008, the last year for which data are available, more than 6 percent of Orleans Parish children younger than 6 tested at or above safe levels of lead in their blood. The rate was the highest for any parish in Louisiana. In Jefferson Parish, 1.6 percent of children tested above the standard. In Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes, fewer than 1 percent of children had elevated levels.
Soil in New Orleans has historically contained unusually high lead concentrations. In 2000, 15 of the 46 neighborhoods sampled in a census survey had soil lead levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory standards.
Remnants of leaded gasoline, used from the 1950s until it was banned in the mid-90s, are one culprit. But lead-based paint, which was banned in the United States in 1978, seems to be the primary cause.
The city in 2001 passed a law requiring safety precautions before contractors can sand or scrape houses covered with lead-based paint, but that ordinance seems to be largely ignored, spreading invisible lead dust and chips across town, said Mielke.
He has found dangerous levels of lead citywide and in about 80 percent of children living in parts of Central City, the Irish Channel, Bywater and Treme, he said.
Statewide, according to the Department of Health and Hospitals, the most common causes of lead poisoning for Louisiana children were paint, soil, dust and vinyl miniblinds, which can form lead dust when they deteriorate in sunlight.
When blood tests for lead came back high for Copeland’s 16-month-old son, Diego, she immediately thought their house must be the cause. She began steam-mopping the floors, washed her kids’ hands more often and insisted that everyone take off their shoes at the door, she said.
While NolaUnleaded leaders are pleased that the city has moved so swiftly — “the fastest we’ve ever seen the city of New Orleans do anything,” Copeland said — they don’t agree with the park’s closure.
They preferred to keep it open while posting signs saying “The soil in Markey Park is toxic,” and telling parents to keep their children away from the soil and wash their hands after they’d played there.
“If the park is closed, kids will be playing somewhere else contaminated,” Copeland said, adding that she doesn’t allow Diego to crawl around in their own backyard, which they can’t afford to remediate. She’s also glad to hear that the city will be testing other parks.
“Lead can really affect learning, even more than socioeconomic levels,” Copeland said. “A lot of kids might be labeled as dumb, but they’re actually brain-damaged from lead.”