Children living near the former site of a huge lead factory in Philadelphia are six times more likely than children nationwide to have elevated levels of toxic lead in their bodies, according to a new federal study prompted in part by a USA TODAY investigation. Tests of soil where these children play also found dangerously high levels of lead contamination in most of the samples examined.

The latest evidence that the neighborhood’s children are being exposed to harmful levels of lead comes more than three years after USA TODAY’s “Ghost Factories” investigation highlighted years of government failings and revealed dangerously contaminated soil at homes around the former site of the John T. Lewis-National Lead-Anzon lead factory that operated for nearly 150 years in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declined to be interviewed. In an emailed statement, the agency said it hopes to make a decision “within the next few months” on whether any cleanup will be done of contaminated soil in the area.

“There’s a problem, and that problem needs to be addressed,” said Sandy Salzman, executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp., a neighborhood revitalization group. “Kids’ lives could be at stake.”

Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., who called for the EPA to study the Philadelphia site and others nationwide after USA TODAY’s 2012 investigation, said federal officials need to move more quickly.

“EPA should expedite its study of this issue so residents can have the peace of mind in knowing that this challenge is being tackled head on,” Casey said. “The health risks of lead exposure are clear. Given the effect on child health and development, even one contaminated and un-remediated site is too many.”

From about 1848 to 1996, various companies made lead paint and other lead products at the huge factory, which spewed lead dust from its smokestacks that would have landed in the yards of the nearby row houses that have long surrounded the site.

While Pennsylvania environmental regulators required the last operator of the factory to address soil contamination inside the factory’s property boundaries around 1998, they did not require the company to do any assessment or cleanup of lead contamination in the surrounding neighborhood, USA TODAY has previously reported. The former factory site is now a cement-capped retail area.

Exposure to even trace amounts of lead — particles so tiny they’re barely visible — can cause serious and irreversible harm to young children, especially to their developing brains. While deteriorating lead-based paint found in older homes is the most widely publicized source of exposures for children, contaminated soil and water also pose significant risks. Children are exposed to lead in soil when they play in the dirt or put dust-covered hands or toys in their mouths.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which headed up the new EPA-funded study of children’s lead exposures in the area near the former John T. Lewis-National Lead-Anzon factory site, declined to be interviewed.

“Preliminary analyses indicate that higher levels of lead in soil are associated with higher blood lead levels in children in the study, even after adjusting for the child’s gender and the age of housing,” the CDC said in written responses to USA TODAY’s questions.

Federal officials drew blood from children and also tested tap water, household dust and soil from their homes’ yards. Much of the collection was done in the summer of 2014. While participating families received notifications of their test results around that time, the preliminary findings of the study only started being released publicly at a neighborhood meeting on Sept. 17.

  • Of 72 soil samples collected from children’s outdoor play areas, 51 samples – or 71% – were contaminated with more than 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead, the EPA’s potential hazard level. The amount of lead in the soil samples ranged from 40 ppm to 7,700 ppm, with a mean of 774 ppm, according to the CDC’s preliminary findings.
  • Of indoor dust wipe samples collected from participating homes, elevated levels of lead were found in 22% of entryway floor samples, 18% of play area floor samples, and 12% of window samples in children’s rooms. More than 100 samples of each type were collected. Lead-based paint is often viewed as a primary contributor to indoor dust, though particles from tracked and wind-blown soil may also contribute to indoor dust.
  • Of 120 tap water samples collected from participants’ kitchen sinks, 22 had detectable levels of lead but none were elevated above the EPA’s action level.
  • About 11% of the 126 children tested in the study area around the former lead factory site had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Nationally, the CDC said, just 2.5% of children have 5 or more micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in their bodies. This federal level of concern was set in 2012. “Children living in the investigation area are 6 times more likely to have blood lead levels equal or above 5 ug/dL compared to the U.S. childhood population,” the CDC said in materials distributed to residents. In some age ranges, about 13% of the children study area had elevated blood lead levels.

There is no known safe level of lead for a child to have in his or her body. Even at blood-lead levels below 5, children can have decreased academic achievement and lowered IQs and an increased incidence of attention-related and problem behaviors, according an extensive review of scientific evidence by the National Toxicology Program in 2012.

The EPA said it is finishing a scientific review of a separate study it has done examining 65 additional soil samples from the neighborhood to determine how much of the lead contaminating the area has the potential to be absorbed once it is inside the body.

“EPA is reviewing the results to determine what, if any, implications this study will have on potential Superfund response actions at the site,” the agency said.

The CDC said it is difficult to know how the lead exposure of children in the study area compares with children living in other parts of Philadelphia because the city’s health department uses different data collection methods and has set a blood-lead level of 10 as its usual trigger for following up with children.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health first told USA TODAY: “Generally, more than 5% of our children will have at least one laboratory test that shows an elevated blood lead level (> 5 ug/dl).”

When USA TODAY sent a follow-up question noting that this indicated children living near the old factory site had a much higher rate of lead exposure than those citywide, the department, after initially not responding, sent a new answer.

“The number of children in Philadelphia who have a single elevated blood lead level is approximately 10%. Thus, prevalence of elevated (blood lead levels) in the JT Lewis site is not significantly different than base line for the city,” health department spokesman Jeff Moran said in an email.

“Nevertheless, we are concerned about this site, if the source of the elevated (blood-lead levels) in those children is determined to be soil,” Moran said.

The city health department also initially disputed to USA TODAY that the CDC’s preliminary findings showed an association between soil contamination and the blood-lead levels of children living in the lead factory’s neighborhood.  In a series of emails, Moran wrote that the data provided to city health officials earlier this year indicated the neighborhood’s lead exposures “were associated with lead in household doorway dust samples. They were not  associated with soil lead levels.”

Philadelphia health officials said they are seeking clarification from officials at the CDC, who separately reconfirmed to USA TODAY that their current analysis shows an association with soil contamination.



Federal officials have known about lead contamination in the neighborhood for decades, evaluating it as far back as the 1980s, records show. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently deciding whether a cleanup of residents’ yards is needed.