Concern grows over lead levels

Bekah Collins


In the early 1900s, the infrastructure of Joplin revolved around mining lead, zinc, and cadmium. 

After the May 22 tornado, much of the debris spread throughout the city was chat material, possibly containing hazardous levels of lead.  This is partially due to the fact that houses destroyed by the tornado were built before the Environmental Protection Agency determined mining waste to be contaminated. 

Construction workers often used chat to fill spaces under driveways, sidewalks, and crawl spaces. 

Now, those structures have been demolished and the contaminated material is exposed in soil that has been dispersed after the tornado.

Evidence of these contaminants may include excessive paint chips present in soil, presence of chat where concrete structures were removed, unnatural soil formations similar to mine waste or chat that become visible during excavation.

Dr. John Knapp, professor of physical science at Missouri Southern, explained that the biggest danger to humans when dealing with lead contamination is inhalation to the lungs. 

“Once you get heavy metals in your body, they don’t come out,” he said. 

He believes that no one is in immediate danger by being exposed to the harmful chemicals for a short period of time, especially if no direct contact is established, but that long-term exposure could put many residents at risk. 

He also mentioned that children are the most vulnerable to toxic metals, as long-term exposure could stunt their physical growth and intellectual development. 

“Kids always eat dirt, so [lead poisoning] is a real problem,” Knapp said. 

The growing bodies of children absorb more lead than  adult bodies, and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead poisoning.

Knapp advises everyone who believes the soil on their properties could be contaminated with lead to remove the soil, or cover it. 

“Put gravel on top of the soil during construction, or if there is an area of contaminated soil, put your driveway there.”

Dan Pekarek, heath director of the city of Joplin, understands the concern regarding levels of lead contamination.

 “With Joplin’s past mining activities and the chat used underneath homes during construction, we are aware of the possibility of finding high levels in the soil that has been disturbed by the tornado,” Pekarek said. 

The city of Joplin encourages residents to obtain a free soil lead test as they rebuild their homes. 

To schedule a testing, persons may call (417) 358-0475 from 8 to 4:30 p.m.,  Monday through Friday.