New Hires from Cypress-Mandela, from left to right, Erwin Lans, Brian Davis, Jarell Davis, Anthony Lanzy and Noel Yakubu
Soil polluted with lead has long plagued the South Prescott neighborhood of West Oakland. But cleanup is finally getting underway.
This Saturday, June 25, the community is invited to learn more about the new green technology this project will use to clean up residential properties there.
(This story is part of Oakland Local's original series on polluted properties in West Oakland: "Toxic Tour 2: Right Beneath Our Feet." Read all stories in this series, and donate now to help us continue this coverage.)
The June 25 Community Open House will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the EPA Incident Command Post for this cleanup project: 349 Mandela Parkway, between Third and Fifth streets.
The purpose of this event is to inform residents of the South Prescott neighborhood about free lead cleanup services available to them and to answer their questions about the new cleanup technology being tried there.
At Saturday’s open house, there will be staff on hand from the cleanup contractors to answer questions. They also will reveal a demonstration yard on Henry Street.
Residents in South Prescott qualify for this free lead cleanup. They can sign up to have their yard remediated and for free landscaping/garden assistance. After this event, residents can stop by the command post between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
View South Prescott Lead Cleanup in a larger map
There have been cleanups of lead pollution at other West Oakland locations, but these have used a complicated, expensive strategy to physically remove the soil from those sites and dispose of it in special landfills. This South Prescott cleanup will employ a less invasive and less costly technology that uses fish bones to chemically bond with the lead, rendering it harmless to humans.
The cleanup contractors (SFS Chemical Safety and Civil & Environmental Consultants) hesitate to call South Prescott a “pilot” project. However, this will be the first time the fish bone remediation technology will be used at a residential site cleanup. It has been used successfully for 15 years at several former military sites, including Camp Stanley, Texas.
This technique, uses ground-up fish bones , called “Apatite II,” to chemically neutralize lead so that the human body cannot absorb it. The fish bones contain naturally occurring phosphates, which bind to heavy metals, making them "no longer bioavailable."
Victor R. Johnson, a senior consultant to the project and leading hazardous materials expert, explained the process using a metaphor. Although the Apatite II process is chemical, the principal is the same as cement - you mix different ingredients so that they bind together.
"The key is to bind the lead tightly enough so that it doesn't unbind in a child's stomach," Johnson said. In this way, the lead becomes harmless. It passes through the body without being absorbed.
Lead poisoning: Still a big problem in Alameda County
Lead exposure can have lifetime of dire consequences for babies and children. It can make it harder for them to learn, to pay attention or to behave. Children under 6 are at the greatest risk and often show no symptoms of lead poisoning. High enough levels of lead also can cause hearing loss and sterility in men and miscarriages in women.
The Apatite II remediation process offers enough potential to have attracted the attention of Jean-Michel Cousteau, internationally-known marine life expert and environmentalist. He came to Oakland just before Earth Day 2011 to inspect the work of Chemical Safety, the primary contractor for the project.
Link to Coverage by KRON of Jean-Michel Cousteau in West Oakland
The South Prescott neighborhood has been the focus of a series of Environmental Protection Agency surveys and actions for the past two decades.
Leana Rosetti, a Community Involvement Coordinator for EPA, said: "A lot of Oakland in general has a lead contamination issue in the soil - but that area in particular seems to have higher lead than others."
It can be difficult to pinpoint sources of lead contamination. Certainly the fact that 73 percent of the houses in South Prescott were built before 1919 is a factor.
Nationwide, most homes constructed before 1978 have some lead paint that can chip and leave lead in the soil. If the paint is removed in the wrong way, the house may be “clean,” but the air and dirt around it can become contaminated. (Lead can enter the body not just through ingestion, but also inhalation.)
Some lead in the neighborhood also seems to have come from past local industrial activity (such as the railroad) and "non-point sources" such as leaded gasoline.
How much lead is a hazard?
Former industrial properties in this 10-block portion of South Prescott (which have since been cleaned up) had lead levels in soil samples ranging from 740 ppm to more than 8,740 ppm.
Because this lead contamination (and cleanup responsibility) can't be assigned to one polluter, it's often up to individual homeowners or renters to test their soil for lead levels. But usually, that’s not how people discover lead contamination in their yards.
Instead, what often happens is that children get tested for lead poisoning - but only if their health care provider recommends it, or if their parents request it. The Alameda County Lead Prevention Program has been trying to get more children in West Oakland tested.
Julie Twichell, communications manager for this program, explains that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently defines 10 micrograms (ug) of lead per deciliter (dL) of blood tested as "lead poisoning." However, significant damage to children has been found at levels of 5-9 micrograms.
Of 16,870 kids tested for lead in Alameda county during 2009, 89 were diagnosed with lead poisoning - levels were at or above 10 ug/dL, and 453 were exposed to lead - levels of 5 to 9 ug/dL. Over the past decade, more than 1,087 children were diagnosed with lead poisoning in the city of Oakland alone.
Twichell went on to describe the multidisciplinary approach of the program: "Like any poisoning, the most important thing is to find the source. We do the report, send a public health nurse out and do an environmental assessment of the house to check for lead in the paint, air and soil. If we find lead in the house, we work with the property owner. We have some funds available to help low-income residents if there are lead hazards at the house."
Community engagement helps spur lead cleanup
Another factor which makes the South Prescott lead cleanup noteworthy is the high level of community involvement.
Most neighborhood residents aren’t aware of the extent or severity of local lead contamination. However, a few key local activists have been fighting West Oakland pollution for decades.
Recently, several of these individuals came together, with the help of the EPA, to form a Community Advisory Group. Now these community advisors are monitoring and helping to guide the South Prescott cleanup work.
In response to requests by the Community Advisory Group and others, local cleanup workers have already been hired - including five graduates of the Cypress-Mandela Training Center.
SFS Chemical Safety also set up a field office in the neighborhood so that they can be more accessible to community members, even though their headquarters are just a few miles away in Emeryville.
Maggie O'Donnell, president of SFS Chemical Safety, said she hopes that enough residents will sign up for the Apatite II service to give the young men from Cypress-Mandela a chance to give back to their friends and neighbors.
"The guys will become experts and will be able to train others in the neighborhood," O'Donnell said. "We hope that eventually this will become a process, the homeowners can do this themselves."
One of the local cleanup workers, Anthony Lanzy, grew up in West Oakland. He is thankful for this job in a tough economy. His face glows as he talks about how his work will help his community.
"I have two kids, so this project is more important than me," he said.
The original Bay Area Toxic Tour series was published in 2009 by Newsdesk.org