Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Get the lead out

Daneel Playgrond looking out from the middle of the park toward St. Charles Avenue

An alarming announcement came from city officials yesterday. Not one, not two, but three different playgrounds have come under scrutiny as having had high levels of lead in the soil. This follows a similar report and closing of Markey Park in the Ninth Ward this past January. That park's soil was remediated and, after several weeks of efforts by city workers was declared safe and reopened earlier this month. The most recent announcement concerns Daneel Playground in the uptown area along historic St Charles Avenue as well as Taylor and Annunciation Playspots in Central City and the Lower Garden District respectively. These parks are considered as having the highest priority, since the levels of lead tested out much higher than most of the others. City officials have acknowledged another 10 playgrounds have tested for higher than permissible levels, but they fall short of the top three. In 2008, the last year such testing data is available, Orleans Parish children tested as having had the highest levels of lead in the blood than any other parish in the state. The shocking level of six percent announced by state officials is of particular concern because high levels of lead exposure have a direct link to delayed development, difficulties in learning and violent behavior by older children and teenagers. New Orleans neighborhoods tested for higher levels of lead exposure than permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 15 out of 46 neighborhoods. What concerns me is that Daneel Playground was the playspot where my son used to enjoy hanging out on the slides and swings. It's serene atmosphere was recently enhanced when Kaboom!, a non-profit group that specializes in upgrading existing or installing new playgrounds replaced equipment there in July of 2009. So, just how did the lead get into the soil? Scientists suggest it is an outgrowth of rampant sandblasting and the use of lead paint over many decades. Leaded gasoline, while now outlawed, might also have contributed to particulates in the air from exhausts of automobiles and fallen to the ground. It seems our children have been swimming in a virtual sea of lead toxicity right under our very noses. Why it's taken so long to discover this is a mystery. Pre-Katrina the results of testing showed Orleans Parish students as among the worst in the state. To say they were challenged by poor facilities, poor curricula and poor teachers would probably be the understatement of the year. In the post-deluvian time as charter schools have sprung up to attempt to bridge the gap in delivery of education to the children of Orleans Parish, we have seen test scores indicate a marked improvement. It is by no means perfect, but indications are that education efforts had begun to turn around a system that failed students in significant ways. Throw into the mix lead toxicity and all of the gains that have been made in the last five years could be threatened. It is expected that the three playgrounds will be fenced and signs will be posted in the coming days alerting the public to the problem. Then a mesh will be placed on the ground to seal the leaded soil and a new layer of fresh soil will be added on top of that to ensure the safety of play areas. If all goes well, the turnaround should be in six weeks or less. Thank goodness the present city administration took the initiative to investigate. The question should be posed: what was going on with the previous administrations that didn't allow such testing to take place? Why did it take so long to respond to the level of lead exposure in our greatest hope and resource for the future (our children)? Also, what can we do to ensure that we don't inadvertently expose our offspring to lead? Should we keep them indoors or is the danger inside from leaded paint even more dangerous than that found in natural environments? My child is a fully grown adult, but I feel for those parents who must now make decisions to protect their children. I pray the closure of these three parks will be the beginning of a new era of health service by city officials to protect the young rather than a way to protect investors and backers of future administrations.

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