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Heavy Metal 

New Orleans is one of the most lead-polluted cities in the United States, placing thousands of children in danger of poisoning. Can art alter the outcome?

click to enlarge Artist/activist Mel Chin (left) and assistant Arthur Simons in front of the St. Roch safehouse. - PHOTO BY MONIQUE VERDIN
  • Photo by Monique Verdin
  • Artist/activist Mel Chin (left) and assistant Arthur Simons in front of the St. Roch safehouse.

On a warm, December morning in the historic, flood-wrecked, struggling St. Roch neighborhood, artist Mel Chin repeatedly shoves the thousand-pound, functioning vault door of his "Safehouse" until nearly the entire façade of the small, white house swings open on its huge, silver hinges. Hazy winter light splashes across the safehouse walls, which are loaded with hundreds of "Fundred" dollar bills, outlined replicas of $100 bills decorated by children, who have often placed their own images in the spot normally reserved for Ben Franklin.

  "In this neighborhood, it has meaning," Chin says.

  His sculptural icon, a house-turned-bank vault, is a symbol of his locally rooted project, Operation Paydirt, a collaborative artwork that aims to restore to safety an estimated 86,000 lead-contaminated properties in New Orleans that could result in lead-poisoned children.

  When he has collected 3 million of the bills decorated by children across the country, he and his team plan to travel to Washington, D.C., and exchange the fundreds for the dollars and means needed to makeover New Orleans' contaminated soils and improve the quality of life for local residents.

  Chin, a soft-spoken fortysomething, is known for insinuating his work in unlikely places — including destroyed homes and toxic landfills — investigating how art can provoke greater social awareness and responsibility. "That's key to this as an installation, especially in a neighborhood that's so tragic," Chin says, referring to St. Roch residents who are living under strained conditions caused by poverty, violence and environmental contamination.

Chin first became aware of the issues surrounding lead-contaminated soil when he started talking with Dr. Howard Mielke, a research scientist with the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research (CBR), Tulane's Chemistry Department and the Paydirt team. Mielke is New Orleans' leading authority on lead-contaminated soil.

Since 1990, Mielke and his team have collected 10,000 soil samples from across New Orleans. Using calculations from those samples, Mielke has drawn a map that illustrates lead concentrations by neighborhood. Central City, Marigny, Bywater, Tulane/Gravier and parts of St. Claude, St. Roch, the Seventh Ward, Tremé, Lafitte, the Garden District, the Lower Garden District and Irish Channel contain some of the highest concentrations of lead in the soil in the nation.

His assertions are backed up by a 2006 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study that shows residential soils in New Orleans exceed the EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality standard for soil lead levels in more than one-third of 147 samples collected by the EPA. The dirt in St. Roch contains some of the highest concentrations of lead in residential soil in the nation. The EPA says the primary source of lead in those soil samples is lead-based paint, which was widely used in homes before 1978.

"It used to be that good paint had lead in it," says the EPA's Carl Edlund, who directs programs to improve the environment for sensitive populations, including children. "Now what do you do with it? It's a national concern."

Youngsters typically are exposed to lead when they play in dirt, then put their hands in their mouths.

"Our children are now being used as a bio-indicator," Mielke says.

Citywide 86,000 properties currently exceed the EPA threshold for lead in soil, far surpassing standards upheld by most European countries. According to a 2005 Center for Disease Control (CDC) study, 42 percent of children under 6 years old and living in poverty in Orleans Parish had elevated lead levels in their blood. "In some parts of New Orleans over 50 percent of the children are lead-poisoned," Mielke says.

For decades, the medical and scientific communities have accepted that high lead levels in blood can damage children's nervous systems, stunt their growth, lower their IQ and delay their development. More recent research reveals the soft metal may be a significant cause of violent criminal behavior in young people because it causes damage to the brain and lowers serotonin levels, which leads to aggressive, impulsive and anti-social behavior.

"Those things typically take place after long exposure to higher levels of lead — anything over 10 [micrograms of lead per deciliter]," says Jay Dempsey, a CDC communication specialist.

A number of scientists have concluded that prolonged exposure to lead in childhood is a risk factor for criminal behavior, including Dr. Herbert Needleman, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Rick Nevin, an economic consultant the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development hired to determine how much it would cost to remove lead paint from public housing units. In a study published in Environmental Research in 2000, Nevin concluded that the number of children exposed to lead across the country between 1941 and 1986 correlated closely with the nation's violent crime rates. Needleman's work on the effects of lead on children was more pointed and spurred the CDC to issue guidelines for the diagnosis and management of lead poisoning in young people. His award-winning research also was instrumental in the EPA's decision to remove lead from gasoline and in the Consumer Product Safety Commission's decision to ban lead from interior paint, the main source for lead contamination of soil.

click to enlarge Docent Wayne Atlow helps Etienne Julien tack a fundred-dollar bill to the wall of the Project Paydirt safehouse. - PHOTO BY ERIC PAUL JULIEN
  • Photo by Eric Paul Julien
  • Docent Wayne Atlow helps Etienne Julien tack a fundred-dollar bill to the wall of the Project Paydirt safehouse.

In 2002 Needleman published a study on 194 arrested and adjudicated youths and 146 nondelinquent youngsters from Pittsburgh high schools. Using X-rays, his researchers found the youths with a criminal record were four times more likely to have elevated lead levels in their bones than nondelinquent youths. To determine whether or not lead was a predominant factor for the delinquent behavior, Needleman and his colleagues developed controls to take into consideration issues of race, neighborhood crime rates, education levels of the mothers, family income and other variables. Except for lead in their bones, detected by X-rays, and behavioral problems, these youths presented no other symptoms of lead poisoning, according to Needleman.

These aren't the only two researchers to link lead poisoning and violent behavior. In her 1990 book Biology and Violence, Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law followed 987 youths from birth to age 22 to find predictors for anti-social behavior. Her results showed that lead poisoning was the strongest predictor of disciplinary problems in school-age children and the third-strongest predictor of juvenile crime. Ellen Silbergeld, an environmental scientist at Johns Hopkins University who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1993 for her work on lead toxicology, also posits there is strong evidence linking violence and lead poisoning.

In Norway, Mielke's work is the foundation for that nation's lead-remediation program. The smooth-running effort is cleaning up lead-contaminated soils at daycare centers, playgrounds, schoolyards and residences. "In Norway, everybody's excited that they're doing something for the children," Mielke says. "We should probably learn more from them." In the United States, our priorities aren't the same, he says. "Our children are the canary in the coal mine," Mielke says.

Two 4-year-olds sit at a table in the St. Roch safehouse, scribbling bright colors across fundred-dollar bills, supervised by Wayne Atlow, safehouse volunteer docent and St. Roch resident. When three neighborhood teenagers wander in to check out the house and ask, "What's it for?" Atlow tells them, "Raising money."

"It's like your vote," adds Arthur Simons, Chin's assistant.

When a photographer enters, gallery host Katherine Bray suggests that because each fundred represents a child's imagination and creativity, it ought to have monetary value.

That is the crux of Chin's grand design. He hopes to have 3 million fundred-dollar bills completed by the end of this year. Then his team will cross the county in a vegetable oil-powered armored car, stopping to fill up at school cafeterias and designated pick-up sites as they make their way to Washington D.C. At the nation's capitol, Chin intends to ask Congress to exchange the fundreds for the dollars it will take to clean up contaminated soil in New Orleans.

He's not exactly sure how the fundreds will be converted to actual cash, but he explains that the details percolating under Paydirt boil down to the powers of creativity and credible science.

"We'll use TLC," Chin says, referring to Treat, Lock and Cover, a scientific method to make the lead in soil safe. His team of environmental scientists is finalizing studies to determine how best to treat the soils and what it will cost. "Maybe a day in Iraq," Chin says, alluding to the price tag America pays for the war in Iraq. "Probably not a lot in relation to the world we live in."

Because lead contamination in soil is so widespread in New Orleans, and because lead travels on dust-size particles through the air, Paydirt's scientists believe the solution has to be broad. "Treating bigger alleviates the resuspension problem," Mielke says. After years of testing and retesting treated or resurfaced areas, Mielke believes that caring for the estimated 86,000 contaminated properties in one sweep will allow for a one-time treatment.

Based on Mielke's previous work with covering lead-contaminated properties and considering current purchasing and application costs, he estimates $300 million is needed for the entire project. From the total, $50 million is allocated for a product that will immobilize the lead. One candidate for that job is a byproduct of the fishing industry called Apatite II. Made from fish bones, Apatite II is a mild phosphate amendment similar to those tested on contaminated soils at Superfund sites.

"Adding the phosphate mineral to soil is similar to fertilizing your yard," says Tressa Tillman, EPA public affairs specialist.

Studies show phosphate amendments render lead and other elements nonbioavailable (not able to be absorbed in the body). According to the TLC method, the application of Apatite II, or a similar product, can lock the lead into stable, nonbioavailable form, so if a child ingests lead that is bound to Apatite II, he or she will simply excrete it.

"This is a cost-effective method of amending soils," says Andrew Hunt, an assistant professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Texas at Arlington. "The cost of the project in total will be far less than the dig-and-dump method, therefore we can treat more soils."

The final phase of the TLC method involves covering the treated soils with a thick layer of what Chin's team hopes will be Mississippi River alluvium soils. "We've tested them and they're very clean soils," Mielke says, adding there is no shortage of the product: "(There's) 300 tons per minute moving past our doorstep."

The dig-and-dump method, which involves removing the leaded soils and transporting them to a landfill suited to contain hazardous material, is very expensive.

Chin's team currently is in the final phase of the verification process and hopes to agree on an environmentally sound treatment method in a few weeks. Chin says using Mississippi River soils in the project would necessitate involving the Army Corps of Engineers, but his contacts at the Corps have been "enthusiastic" and "very responsive" to the idea. He also hopes the city and state give their seals of approval to the project.

When the 7,000 pounds of fundred-dollar bills travel to Washington, D.C., and if the 3 million illustrated voices are heard in our nation's capitol, a large part of Chin's goal will have been accomplished: an education and awareness about lead contamination, lead poisoning and its effects.

"This work is singular," Simons says. "It involves 3 million kids and changing the chemistry of a city's soil. This is really revolutionary."

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