A Trillion Dollar Problem: Shocking New Study Reveals That 25% of U.S. Yards Have Unsafe Levels of Lead

Yard Lawnmower

A new study has found that approximately 25% of U.S. residential soils exceed the EPA’s new lead guideline of 200 ppm, a standard that has been recently halved from 400 ppm. With nearly 40% of households having multiple sources of lead exposure, remediation costs for contaminated soils using traditional methods could reach $1 trillion, highlighting the extensive and costly nature of the problem.

Nearly 40% of households may exceed safety recommendations due to multiple sources of lead exposure. Nationally, applying standard remediation techniques to address this could exceed costs of $1 trillion.

A new study reveals that approximately one in four U.S. households have soil that contains lead levels exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s updated screening threshold of 200 parts per million (ppm), a reduction from the previous limit of 400 ppm. Additionally, for households facing exposure from multiple sources, the EPA has further reduced the guideline to 100 ppm; the study found that nearly 40% of households surpass this stricter level.

“I was shocked at how many households were above the new 200 ppm guideline,” said Gabriel Filippelli, a biochemist at Indiana University who led the new study. “I assumed it was going to be a more modest number. And results for the 100 ppm guideline are even worse.”

Remediating the roughly 29 million affected households using traditional “dig and dump” soil removal methods could cost upward of $1 trillion, the study calculated. The study was published in GeoHealth, an open-access AGU journal that publishes research investigating the intersection of human and planetary health for a sustainable future. Filippelli is the former editor-in-chief of GeoHealth

National lead problem “nowhere near over” 

Lead is a heavy metal that can accumulate in the human body, with toxic effects. In children, exposure to lead is associated with lower educational outcomes. In the United States, the burden of lead exposure has historically fallen on lower-income communities and communities of color because of redlining and other discriminatory practices. Lead pollution can come from aging water pipes, old paint, remnant gasoline, and industrial pollution, but today, most lead exposure is from contaminated soils and dust, even after lead-containing infrastructure was removed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first set a limit on the concentration of lead in blood in 1991 at 10 micrograms per deciliter, and it lowered that limit several times until reaching the current limit of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter. But the EPA’s soil lead screening level remained unchanged for more than 30 years until the January announcement. Some states had already established their own lower guidelines; California has the lowest screening level, at 80 ppm.

Lead Levels in Soil Samples in Chicago

Lead levels in soil samples in Chicago, generated from the community lead portal. Urban households are likely to have multiple sources of lead exposure, making the screening level 100 ppm. Note how few samples here are under that level (darkest blue dots). Credit: AGU

The lag is likely due to “the immensity and ubiquity of the problem,” the study authors wrote. “The scale is astounding, and the nation’s lead and remediation efforts just became substantially more complicated.” That’s because once the EPA lowers a screening limit, they need to tell people what to do if their soils exceed it.

When the EPA lowered the screening level, Filippelli and his co-authors decided to make use of the database of 15,595 residential soil samples from the contiguous United States that they’d collected over the years to find out how many exceeded the new guideline.

Household health hazard 

About 25% of the residential soil samples, collected from yards, gardens, alleys, and other residential spots, exceeded the new 200 ppm level, the study found. (Only 12% of samples had exceeded the older, 400 ppm level.) Extrapolating across the country, that equates to roughly 29 million households.

The EPA issued separate guidance for households with multiple sources of exposure, such as both lead-contaminated soil and lead pipes, setting the level in those situations at 100 ppm. In practice, that’s most urban households, Filippelli said. Forty percent of households exceed that limit, increasing the number of affected households to nearly 50 million, the study found.

Typically, contaminated soils are remediated with removal — colloquially, “dig and dump.” But the practice is costly and typically only used after an area is placed on the National Priority List for remediation, a process that can take years. To remediate all contaminated households with “dig and dump” would cost between $290 billion and $1.2 trillion, the authors calculated.

A cheaper option is “capping”: burying the contaminated soil with about a foot of soil or mulch. A geotechnical fabric barrier can also be installed. Most lead contamination is in the top 10 to 12 inches of soil, Filippelli said, so this simple method either covers up the problem or dilutes it to an acceptable level.

“Urban gardeners have been doing this forever anyway, with raised beds, because they’re intuitively concerned about the history of land use at their house,” Filippelli said.

And capping is quicker.

“A huge advantage of capping is speed. It immediately reduces exposure,” Filippelli said. “You’re not waiting two years on a list to have your yard remediated while your child is getting poisoned. It’s done in a weekend.

Capping still requires time and effort; residents must find clean soil, transport it to their home, and spread it out. But the health benefits likely outweigh those costs, Filippelli said.

Because capping has been done more informally, there’s still a lot to be learned about its lifespan and sustainability, Filippelli said. That’s where the research will go next.

Despite the “staggering” scale of the problem, “I’m really optimistic,” Filippelli said. “Lead is the most easily solvable problem that we have. We know where it is, and we know how to avoid it. It’s just a matter of taking action.”

Reference: “One in Four US Households Likely Exceed New Soil Lead Guidance Levels” by Gabriel M. Filippelli, Matthew Dietrich, John Shukle, Leah Wood, Andrew Margenot, S. Perl Egendorf and Howard W. Mielke, 18 June 2024, GeoHealth.
DOI: 10.1029/2024GH001045

3 Comments on "A Trillion Dollar Problem: Shocking New Study Reveals That 25% of U.S. Yards Have Unsafe Levels of Lead"

  1. Shouldn’t the major oil companies have some skin in the game?

  2. Clyde Spencer | June 23, 2024 at 7:11 pm | Reply

    Because I don’t eat the grass in my lawn, or the worms living in the soil, why should I be concerned? Just because something can be detected, or even measured, doesn’t automatically translate to an environmental hazard. Where is the evidence that those whose homes have elevated lead concentrations in their soil are being negatively impacted by the presence of lead in the soil? Even if there is correlation, one needs to rule out it being a spurious correlation. That is, humans with elevated lead may be because of lead in the water used for drinking and cooking, and the soils are elevated because the same water is used for the lawns.

    The report does not make a good case for the dominant pathway for humans acquiring elevated blood levels of lead, and the reduction of recommended levels below 100 PPM is tacit acknowledgment that they don’t really know and are taking a conservative approach. Albeit, they suggest that dust may be important. The simplest solution would be to suppress dust by encouraging residents to keep their lawns watered well enough to keep the grass healthy! In the case of unpaved alleys, pave it! Capping the lawns will generate more carbon dioxide and may change the drainage patterns.

  3. Will they declare a lockdown over that?

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.