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The operations of the John T. Lewis & Bros. lead factory are shown in this 1889 industrial site map and drawing. Various companies did lead manufacturing at the site for more than 140 years. / Courtesy of the Bridgeman Art Library

More than 75% of young children are at risk of being poisoned with troubling levels of lead by playing regularly in contaminated dirt surrounding a long-closed Philadelphia factory site featured in a USA TODAY investigation, according to new computer modeling by federal health officials.

Pregnant women are also at risk from exposure to lead-contaminated soil in the heavily populated neighborhood surrounding where the John T. Lewis/National Lead factory operated under various names for more than 140 years, according to a health consultation report by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) dated June 3.

The models are the first significant attempt in recent years to quantify the risk to families around one of the largest former lead factory sites featured in USA TODAY's "Ghost Factories" investigation two years ago. Despite the high level of risk calculated for people living at homes with contaminated yards, there is no plan to do a soil cleanup.

Part of the reason: The soil throughout Philadelphia - a city with a long industrial history - may be just as contaminated as that around the John T. Lewis/National Lead factory site, the ATSDR report says. Health and environmental officials continue to study the neighborhood's soil and test people's blood while educating residents about actions they can take to protect themselves, the report said.

"As data is collected and evaluated, U.S. EPA will make decisions on any need for a removal action at individual properties," the report says.

Based on initial soil tests in the area, the model predicts that 37% of pregnant women living at properties with contaminated soil around the John T. Lewis site may be exposed to lead levels high enough for their developing fetuses to have concerning levels of the toxic metal. Lead can cause reduced intelligence, attention disorders and other health problems even at low levels of exposure.

Given the risks to children and pregnant women, the lack of a cleanup plan frustrates some in the neighborhood.

"We've known this was an issue for a long time. The last thing we need is to produce another study," said Shanta Schachter, deputy director of New Kensington Community Development, a neighborhood group that has been working with the Environmental Protection Agency to address the area's lead-contaminated soil.

"The end result that's needed is the soil and the environment needs to be cleaned," Schachter said. "Nobody should have to live in elevated lead environments."

For now, the EPA is focusing on education, in part because the site is in an urban area where the huge factory may not have been the only source of soil contamination, and residents live in old homes that may contain lead-based paint, records show. At former lead factory sites in smaller cities, soil that poses less of a risk has been removed and replaced, records show.

"We're telling people in a variety of ways how to prevent exposure," EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Smith said. "We're taking this educational approach because urban lead is prevalent throughout the country."

Actions families can take include covering bare dirt with grass or mulch and avoiding contact with bare soil, keeping children's hands clean and removing shoes before entering the house, according to the ATSDR report.

Nobody at Philadelphia's Health Department was available last week or this week to discuss the health risks posed by the neighborhood's soil, spokesman Jeff Moran said.

The John T. Lewis site was one of several featured in USA TODAY's "Ghost Factories" series in 2012. The series revealed that federal and state environmental officials had failed to adequately investigate dangers posed by hundreds of old lead smelter sites, leaving thousands of families in harm's way without warning them of the dangers posed by the toxic fallout that remained in their neighborhoods.

This summer, the EPA's Office of Inspector General confirmed many of USA TODAY's findings and faulted the EPA for taking more than 12 years to complete preliminary assessments on more than 460 potential sites of forgotten lead smelters first brought to the agency's attention by an environmental scientist in 2001.

The 8.5-acre site of the former John T. Lewis lead factory, where lead paint and other lead products were produced from about 1848 until 1996, is about 3 miles northeast of downtown Philadelphia.

The former factory's property was largely paved over and redeveloped with retail shops in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of a voluntary state cleanup. Concerns about lead contamination that fell on the surrounding residences have persisted for decades. Lead particles can remain for hundreds of years in the top layer of soil, poisoning children when they put dust-covered hands or toys in their mouths.

The yards of some homes surrounding the factory were cemented over as part of a settlement in a class-action lawsuit in the 1990s. Contamination at many other homes was never addressed, even though there have been multiple government studies over the years.

In 2005, the EPA sent investigators to look at the site after it was included on the 2001 list of potentially unrecognized lead factory sites. The investigators recommended soil tests, which were done in 2009. Of the 17 samples from four homes' yards, 14 had elevated lead levels. In 2011, USA TODAY tested dozens of samples of soil in nearby yards as part of its "Ghost Factories" investigation, also finding dangerous levels of lead contamination. Another round of EPA tests in 2011 at three homes showed high levels of lead.

The new ATSDR health consultation report recommends that the EPA, state or local governments take action to reduce the potential for exposures to soil around the old factory site and that they continue efforts to evaluate the extent of contamination in the neighborhood.

The report notes, "There is the potential that soil lead levels are high throughout the area near the former John T. Lewis facility. ... There is not enough information currently available to discern if soil lead levels in the site area are significantly different from soil lead levels throughout the City of Philadelphia generally."

Such language sounds "fairly dismissive" of the risk faced by families living near the John T. Lewis factory site that manufactured lead for more than a century, Schachter said. "They say there's definitely a higher risk of lead exposure, but then they say that could just be normal for the city."

Schachter said she suspects a lack of money may be a factor in the EPA's approach at the site. Government audits have found that the cost to clean up contaminated sites already on the EPA's Superfund list exceed the program's funding levels.

USA TODAY reported in December 2012 that Pennsylvania environmental regulators allowed Anzon, the last company to operate the plant, to enroll in a voluntary state program around 1998 to clean up just the factory's property ?? without requiring any investigation of potential toxic fallout on the surrounding neighborhood. Successful completion of the program generally gives companies liability relief from "ever having to do more cleanup in the future," according to information about the program that was on the department's website.

Read the full "Ghost Factories" series at ghostfactories.usatoday.com.

Follow USA TODAY investigative reporter Alison Young on Twitter: @alisonannyoung



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Yards pose health risk to kids, moms near factory site

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