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Science and the Environment

Three Years After Tornado, Lead Contamination is Rife in Joplin Yards

An overturned car rests in front of the hull of the former St. John's Regional Medical Center days after the May 22, 2011

Good morning, and welcome to our Sense of Community series on a three-year follow up to the largest catastrophe to hit our region in nearly a century:  the 2011 Joplin Tornado.

On this day, a dumptruck filled with lead-contaminated soil is driving away from a construction site where a new home is going up.  Connor Avenue was in the heart of the 2011 Joplin tornado’s path, and all of the homes here have been built after the storm.  There’s one catch to this otherwise idyllic neighborhood: all of the yards were contaminated with lead.  The City of Joplin and the Jasper County Health Department have had to scrape off the top layer of dirty soil and replace it with something cleaner.

"This is a new house being built at the corner of 28th and Connor. The entire property was contaminated 18 inches deep,” said Leslie Heitkamp, who works with the City of Joplin. She’s in charge of the lead-cleanup operations, which, three years after the storm, are still going full-speed ahead.

On average, she’s replacing four to six yards a week. Some of the lead is mixed in with chat.  But other chunks of lead ore found in yards are the size of golf balls.  The lead ore is shiny, silver colored – and Heitkamp says those are the ones kids like to pick up and bring in the house. But she’s warning Joplin residents to leave those shiny rocks alone – she’s all too familiar with the list of symptoms for elevated levels of lead in the blood.

“Lead is most dangerous to children between six months and six years of age,” she said. “They don’t have to be eating paint chips. They don’t have to be eating dirt. It is a transfer hazard, meaning if the yard’s contaminated and the dog’s outside, or the parents are outside, and they get the lead-contaminated dirt on their shoes, or on the dog’s feet, they bring it right back into the house,” Heitkamp said.

Then, it’s all over the floor.  And that’s when a baby, for example, can drop its pacifier, pick it back up, and ingest the lead.

In adults, lead poisoning can cause miscarriage or premature birth for pregnant women, memory loss, and reduced sperm count in men. The Jasper County Health Department tested children for elevated lead levels free of charge.

To avoid Joplin residents, particularly children, from too much lead exposure, the city is still testing yards, and replacing entire yards when they are contaminated. Contracted workers are raking and sweeping dirt out of the street next to one contaminated yard.

Each time someone applies for a building permit to construct a new home or business in the tornado zone, they must have the soil sampled first. That’s now a city ordinance.

So, where is all of this lead coming from?  Well, in a nutshell, it’s directly from Joplin’s past as a major lead mining town.

“The miners would haul chat home from work,” Heitkamp said. They used the chat for a cheap filler to build their houses on in the early 1900s.  But that chat, she says, was full of lead. 

And after the tornado, with all of the demolition and bulldozing, those lead deposits were scattered even more.

One resident whose yard is completely torn up right now because of the lead testing is Talison Davies, a father of three who lives a half mile away from the first yard we visited. 

“Two of my boys are extremely interested in rocks,” Davies said.

He recently bought this house, which was one of the few left standing after the tornado – and he wanted to build a shed out back.  So, he was required to get his soil tested.

He was very surprised at the levels of lead found in his yard.

“I mean, you don’t want to think the lead levels are going to be dangerous, if you’re going to live in a city. If you live in a city, that place should be clear,” Davies said.

Homeowners don’t incur any costs for the entire process – the testing and the remediation, or the replacement of soil is completely paid for by grants from the Environmental Protection Agency. So far, the EPA has provided more than $5 million toward the replacement of Joplin’s contaminated yards.

But the biggest challenge now, she says, is that many people don’t know they can, or should, have their yards tested. Even if residents don’t live in the tornado zone, they can still have their yards tested free of charge.  You can learn more about getting your soil tested for lead contamination by calling (417) 358-0480.

Join us this afternoon as our Sense of Community Series on Joplin:  Three Years Later continues. We’ll be bringing you an update of how the Ozarks’ severe weather warnings are changing.