MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's talk about a serious health issue that, quite frankly, we were surprised to find out is still a problem in 2015, and that's excess lead getting into the blood of many American children. In a few minutes, we're going to hear from a doctor in Flint, Mich., who found alarming increases in kids' lead levels there, but we start in Philadelphia. That's where a recent federal study is reigniting decades-old worries about contamination in the neighborhoods that surround an old lead production plant. As WHYY's Carolyn Beeler reports, it's hard to tell where the lead found in soil and kids' bodies is coming from.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)
CAROLYN BEELER, BYLINE: Today, the former factory site in North Philadelphia is a commercial strip, home to a gas station, an Applebee's and a Dunkin' Donuts. Row houses all around are being rehabbed and increasing in value. But longtime residents like Joann Hand remember the lead smelters that stood here until the late 1990s.
JOANN HAND: I mean, we played in the lot when we were younger. We used to have a baseball team coming out of there.
BEELER: Hand is pointing to an empty lot near the former plant office.
HAND: Nobody ever told us how bad it was, how high the levels were. I mean, we knew something was going on, but we just didn't know nothing because we had no information on it.
BEELER: Federal testing made public last month found nearly one in seven kids in neighborhoods surrounding the site had elevated levels of lead in their blood. That's compared to a national average of one in 40.
SANDY SALZMAN: I would love to say that I'm shocked, but obviously, we're not.
BEELER: Sandy Salzman is head of the local community development corporation. She says 71 percent of soil samples taken in the neighborhood also had elevated lead levels.
SALZMAN: We were expecting them to be high. I don't think we thought they were going to be as high as they were or as many houses were going to be involved.
BEELER: Nationally, average blood levels in kids have decreased tenfold in the last few decades, but lead still lingers stubbornly in homes and soil, especially in older cities. That's something Mary Jean Brown with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was focusing on just last week.
MARY JEAN BROWN: Our state health department folks who lead are at a big meeting here at CDC, and so the theme of that meeting has been - it's not done yet.
BEELER: Half a million U.S. kids aged one to five still have elevated blood lead levels. Lead can impact IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement, even in cases of mild exposure. And sometimes, it's hard to pinpoint where the lead is coming from. Brown says emissions from lead smelters like the one in Philadelphia, lead paint flaking off of homes and left over particles from leaded gasoline get all mixed up in soil.
BROWN: So lead paint doesn't have a finger print that you could test for chemically that's different from the chemical signature from the lead that was being smelted at the factory or from the gasoline emissions. So being able to find a smoking gun source is not really possible, at least now.
BEELER: There's inability to pinpoint the cause can complicate who's responsible for cleanup efforts. And as bad as lead poisoning is near the former lead plant, it's just as bad in the rest of Philadelphia. That doesn't change Sandy Salzman and her community development corporation's demand for the Environmental Protection Agency to step in.
SALZMAN: Whoever's causing this or wherever it's coming from, it has to be fixed. Obviously, it needs to be fixed citywide, but I want to see my neighborhood fixed first. We've been fighting this fight for a very long time.
BEELER: The EPA says it hopes to decide within the next few months if soil cleanup needs to be done. For NPR News, I'm Carolyn Beeler.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.