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'Promising results': K-State PhD students work in KC to pioneer cost-effective way of reducing lead in soil

Posted: 4:00 PM, Jan 25, 2024
Updated: 2024-01-31 11:39:22-05
lead till

Editor's note: This is the second article of a two-part series covering lead contamination in Kansas City, Missouri. Part one features a mom whose two sons were poisoned by the lead found in the front yard of their south KCMO rental property in 2022. Part two highlights efforts by Kansas State University PhD students who are pioneering a cost-effective way to reduce lead's presence in soil.

Researchers and PhD students with Kansas State University are using Kansas City as a model to pioneer a cost-effective and efficient way of reducing lead's presence in soil through the use of environmentally safe chemicals.

When moving into a new home, testing the property for lead is not at the forefront of most minds, but everything changed for Heather Ross when her two young sons were poisoned by lead found in the soil of their south Kansas City, Missouri, rental property in 2022.

Attention toward lead contamination and exposure — which is one of the most “common and preventable environmental health problems” in the United States today — is gaining support across the Kansas City region. It’s a move by officials to ensure more families don’t suffer like Ross and her children.

Child occupants, especially those 6 and younger, of homes built prior to 1950 are at the highest risk of lead poisoning, and in Missouri, more than one out of every five houses were built preceding that year, when paint contained high amounts of lead, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. However, lead-based paint was used in homes across the United States until it was banned in 1978.

Ross moved with her two sons, Vincent, 5, and Issac, 4, into a rental property at 5344 Brooklyn Avenue, which was built in 1925, to escape domestic violence in October 2020. By February 2021, Vincent and Issac started exhibiting symptoms that were dismissed as viral-related, but when enrolling into a Head Start program in 2022, the brothers tested positive for high levels of lead.

Heather Ross and sons
Heather Ross and her two sons, Issac and Vincent, watch TV on their couch in Raytown, Missouri, on Jan. 3, 2024.

Since moving out of the rental property three weeks after the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department found lead contaminated soil in the front yard — the exact yard and soil Issac and Vincent played in to keep themselves entertained during the pandemic — in July 2022, Ross has lived in two other homes, both of which she tested for lead.

5344 Brooklyn Avenue
The home, located at 5344 Brooklyn Avenue in KCMO, where Ross' two sons were exposed to lead.

“My biggest thing is, parents, if you feel something is wrong with your child, follow your gut, follow your gut,” Ross said. “You know something is wrong, you know your child, you know their normal behavior, you know their normal reactions, follow that. The health department, you can call them and they will come out and they will test and they will do all that. I did not know that.”

The Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department offers free lead tests for children and pregnant women — who are also one of the most vulnerable populations to lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning prevention and removal processes are at the forefront of some local minds — including those associated with Kansas State University, the Wyandotte County Public Health Department, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 7, Children’s Mercy, and the city of Kansas City, Missouri, along with its health department.

"I'm always thinking, what will happen if this happens to him?” Amila Mudyansela, a K-State PhD student working to find more efficient ways to reduce lead in soil, said when talking about his young son. “So yeah, I want to find something to treat the soil and make their future better."

Amila Mudansela and son
Amila Mudyansela, a K-State PhD student working to find more efficient ways to remove lead from soil, shows a picture of his son.

Mudyansela, along with his professor and peers, are working on contaminated sites in neighborhoods of east Kansas City, Missouri, where lead is prevalent — along with older housing stock — and communities are underserved.

k-state lead tilling
Kansas State University PhD students till soil in at 3928 Garfield Avenue in east Kansas City, Missouri, as part of a study to produce more cost-efficient ways of removing lead from soil.

“I think through 2022, EPA Region 7 has cleaned up roughly 28,000 residences, so that’s a huge number but we still have probably about 10,000 residences to remediate at the current cleanup levels,” EPA Region 7 Administrator Meg McCollister said.

On Oct. 12, 2023, EPA Region 7 presented Kansas City, Missouri, with a $3 million grant to redevelop contaminated — or potentially contaminated — sites, known as Brownfields, in the city. After the ceremony, city representatives, residents and the EPA loaded onto a bus for a tour of two clean-up sites in east KCMO.

RELATED | Kansas City, Missouri, receives $3 million to redevelop contaminated sites in underserved areas

According to KCMO, approximately $1.8 million in grants funded the development of the low-income East Garfield Senior Cottages, which was the first stop on the tour. The eight two-bedroom units are part of the affordable senior and multi-family housing initiatives in the Ivanhoe Neighborhood near E. 39th Street.

Stop 1
Tour attendees gather outside the East Garfield Senior Cottages on Oct. 12.

“(The $3 million) will go to projects like this. So, this is an example of a completed project that wouldn’t have been possible without Brownfields money, and we’re hoping to do a lot more like these," Andrew Bracker, Brownfields coordinator with KCMO, said.

KCMO tested vacant lots in the city for lead contamination, and approximately 50% of them were contaminated with lead amounts greater than what Missouri advises for residential areas. Lead poisoning rates among children in Kansas City's poorest neighborhoods are up to nine times the national average, according to KCMO.

Previous homes built 50 to 70 years ago on the same lot as the East Garfield Senior Cottages used lead-based paint, which eventually contaminated the soil. The cleanup of the site — which included excavating over 1,700 tons of dirt — was completed in 2022. However, such lead removal processes are not cheap.

“So you’re removing soil and you haul it away and you bring in clean fresh soil,” McCollister said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Although Mundansela and other K-State students working at the contaminated sites believe there are easier — and more importantly — more cost-efficient ways of removing lead from soil. It may just take years of trial and error.

Ganga Hettiarachchi
Dr. Ganga Hettiarachchi, a professor of soil and environmental chemistry at Kansas State University.

"So, we know there are ways we can minimize impacts of soil contaminants,” Dr. Ganga Hettiarachchi, a professor at K-State and world-leading scientist in trace metal and nutrient chemistry in soils, said.

Beginning in the summer of 2022, Hettiarachchi and her PhD students began working at contaminated sites — sometimes within neighborhoods adjacent to occupied homes — in east Kansas City, Missouri, through a partnership with the EPA, Children’s Mercy and the KCMO Health Department.

soil testing.jpg
Kansas State University leads the soil testing initiatives on this vacant lot on Brooklyn Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Rather than thinking that we can scoop all of the soil out in the city, we are trying to see whether we can use these soil amendments, such as phosphorus, and other things that we know would help to reduce the bioavailability of lead,” Hettiarachchi said.

During the ongoing 30-month trial-and-error process, Mudyansela and his fellow students till sectioned-off plots of land at the contaminated sites and bring soil samples back to their lab in Manhattan, Kansas, where they treat each sample with different environmentally safe chemicals — such as phosphorus. The students monitor the test samples for about a month to see which chemical best reduces the presence of lead before implementing the chemicals at the sites and continue monitoring.

Kansas State lab
At a lab in Manhattan, Kansas, a Kansas State University student researches ways to reduce the bioavailability of lead in soil taken from a contaminated Kansas City, Missouri, site.

“I will say that those types of technologies, that type of research is really important because we are going to need more solutions in the future,” the EPA’s McCollister said. “And you know, depending on where else we go, if we test someone’s yard and we find lead, we keep testing yards and finding lead, then we need some other innovations, and I’m really excited about the work going on with K-State, excited to see what they come up with.”

Among the chemicals K-State has tested, phosphorus — which naturally occurs in the body and in foods and is implemented in fertilizer — seems to be leading the way in reducing the bioavailability — or, the amount that can be absorbed by the human body — of lead in soil.

Amila Mudansela
Amila Mudyansela, a K-State PhD student working to find more efficient ways to remove lead from soil.

“We are collecting good data, and we are seeing some good results, promising results,” Mudyansela said.

Ryan Allenbrand, the program manager for Healthy Homes with Children’s Mercy, said lead removal processes with long-lasting or permanent results are often costly, and more often than not, communities struggle to fund such initiatives.

“I feel like we’re heading in the right direction and really studying this hypothesis, that this could be really a game changer when it comes to changing around the family's home or vacant lots, or even around really busy roadways where the soil is contaminated,” he said.

And if the hypothesis proves true, its benefits could extend beyond Kansas City.

“We are using Kansas City as sort of like a model city, so the idea is if this works here, it should work other places too, to expand it beyond Kansas City,” Hettiarachchi said.

As of September 2023, the EPA estimates lead exposure hazards exist in approximately 3 million U.S. households with occupants under the age of 6. Of those households, 2 million are low-income.

“There are 10 EPA regions, we’re Region 7, and different regions have different levels of lead based on where there were lead mines historically — or led smelters — so not every region has the same amount of lead,” McCollister said. “I guess it’s the best way to put it, but it is a nationwide top priority.”

Such history unfolded in Missouri. Lead mining and smelting played a large role in Missouri’s history, according to MDHSS.

In the 1700s, French explorers first discovered lead in Missouri along the Meramec River, a tributary of the Mississippi that runs through suburban areas of St. Louis and is well-known for its recreational use, according to MDHSS.

Since 1907, Missouri has dominated the country’s production of lead, with most modern-day production coming out of southeast Missouri, where waste “often ends up on driveways, in yards, or even in children’s play areas,” per MDHSS. Production spanning from 1859 to 1970 also occurred closer to Kansas City, near Joplin in an area known as the Tri-State Zinc-Lead district, which reached parts of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, according to the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council.

So, as the saying goes, history repeats itself as its ripple effects trickle through communities of Kansas City, Missouri, and into the play areas of children, just like Issac and Vincent.