GETTING THE DIRT: Collaborative effort finds dangerous levels of lead in Newport

“Transdisciplinary collaboration is hard … but it’s worth it.”

soil picture

By Kelsey Bungenstock
Marketing & Communications Intern

Thanks to a collaborative study between Northern Kentucky University Journalism and Environmental Sciences majors, some Newport, Ky., residents now know if the soil in their yards contains potentially harmful levels of lead.

The study tested eight residential sites near the former location of a lead smelter plant in Newport.

After the NKU students collected and analyzed multiple measurements at each site, they found that 38 percent of the samples exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm), the EPA’s recommended maximum level for children’s play areas.

Additionally, 99 percent exceeded 100 ppm—the EPA’s recommended maximum for urban gardening.

Students and faculty representatives from both departments met last week to present findings from their transdisciplinary project to about 40 faculty and students in Griffin Hall. Michele Day represented the Communications department, while Dr. Kirsten Schwarz and student Emily Keener represented the Environmental Science program.

The collaboration was a follow-up to a 2012 USA Today investigative report of how industries contribute to lead contamination of soil in the environment in urban and rural settings. Day and Schwarz invited journalism and environmental science students to participate in the Newport project.

“Scientists struggle to find someone to tell their story in an interesting and impactful way,” Schwarz said. “Incorporating journalism into the study was a logical step.”

A proposal for the follow-up study was submitted to the NKU Center for Integrative Natural Science and Mathematics (CINSAM) in November 2014. After it was approved and funding was granted, field-testing and reporting began in January 2015.

Lead in soil is an important and often overlooked source of lead contamination in cities. While past studies have focused on industrial contributions to lead contamination in soil, there are other important sources of lead in cities, such as lead-based paint and gasoline.

That was one of the main inspirations behind the desire for a follow-up to the USA Today report.

“Lead-contaminated soil is a much broader issue than just the communities that are living adjacent to old industrial sites,” Schwarz said.

Thanks to the grant money, environmental science students were able to measure lead levels in the sample area’s soil through handheld machines called X-ray fluorescent (XRF) analyzers. XRF analyzers have the capability to quantify lead onsite, rather than having to send the samples to a lab.

The use of XRF analyzers provided a great convenience, but that didn’t make the project easy.

One of the greater challenges for the inter-department collaboration was the element of timing. According to Schwarz, the pace of science—when compared to journalism—is “glacial.” Day recalls that the NKU journalism student working on the project, Kevin Schultz, was anxious to start getting reactions to the results when the science students hadn’t even been to the research sites yet.

“It took some time to adjust. The experience gave us a better understanding of the mindset of the scientist, but we were also trying to keep the priorities of the journalist,” Day said.

Homeowners for the test sites received the results, along with precautions to take regarding the level of lead contamination found in their yard.

“Those of us who worked on the study benefitted from the fact that NKU has a really good reputation within the community,” Schwarz said. “When we’re doing these kinds of projects in the community, we have to be careful that we respect that reputation, recognizing that it is an important relationship, but also a fragile one.”

According to the students’ findings, urban soil lead is patchy and widespread, but intensive sampling and spatial modeling can help predict patterns of lead-contaminated soil.

In a continuation of their research, environmental science students will use different element ratios in order to try to determine the source of the high lead levels in Newport’s soil. The project also could lead to future journalism projects involving science.

“Transdisciplinary collaboration is hard, and it’s not efficient, but it’s worth it,” Day said.