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Jefferson County, EPA To Test More Residential Yards For Lead Contamination

A photo of a yard the Environmental Protection Agency is removing lead pollution from.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Jefferson County health officials plan this year to increase testing for lead contamination in residential areas near where companies mined for heavy metals several decades ago. 

The county’s health department will work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to educate residents about potential lead contamination in their yards. The agencies also are encouraging parents to have their children’s blood tested for lead.

Although the EPA began removing lead contamination from the county in the mid-2000s, that has been a lengthy process as people have moved soil from areas that were former mining sites and used them as topsoil or fill in their yards, said Greg Bach, an EPA remedial project manager. 

“It was a little later in our assessment work that we started to realize that this material is in the waterways in the [Big River] floodplain, and people are using the material for residential purposes,” Bach said. 

A $226,741 grant from the EPA will fund the county’s public education campaign until the end of October. The county could receive additional grant money over the next two years. 

Heavy historic lead mining took place in Jefferson County and other parts of southwest Missouri in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is why it’s known as the “Old Lead Belt.” Nearly the entire county is a Superfund site, or a federally designated toxic waste area. 

The southwest part of the county, particularly along Big River, has the most significant levels of lead contamination, Bach said. Flooding in recent years has also spread contamination in areas near the river, said Melissa Parmeley, a clinical services manager at the Jefferson County Department of Health. 

“We need to educate others who handle soil in the area about the potential risks and how to prevent recontamination through moving soil in the area,” Parmeley said.

Jefferson County officials will be testing for lead in homes and in yards to determine how much contamination has come from the former mining sites. Many homes built prior to 1978 have lead-based paint, which can be another major source of lead poisoning. 

The EPA has tested soils in more than 4,650 residential properties in Jefferson County and removed levels of lead from 978 residential yards that had high levels of it. The agency considers levels of lead above 400 parts per million in soil to be hazardous. The testing comes at no cost to residents. 

State officials recommend that residents in the southwest portion of the county have their yards tested for lead. They should be careful when doing yard work, such as planting a tree, said Lorena Locke, a DHSS health educator. 

“There is a risk [of lead exposure] if they dig in their yards to a certain depth,” she said. 

Out of 1,738 children tested for lead levels in blood in 2018, DHSS officials found that 20 had elevated blood lead levels. The state is still finalizing data collected in 2019. The Jefferson County Health Department found that 43 out of 468 children tested in 2019 had elevated levels of lead in their blood. 

The EPA will host an open house at the Hillsboro Civic Center to educate residents in southwest Jefferson County about lead exposure at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 23. 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.