In major cities across the United States, an ecological and health crisis has been unfolding for decades. The soil in urban environments has endured years of pollution in the form of airborne lead dust from gasoline, paint, and other industrial emissions. While the use of lead in these applications is now restricted, the damage is done. In affected cities, blood poisoning stemming from lead soil contamination poses serious complications for children, including developmental disabilities and behavioral disorders.
In New Orleans, prior to Hurricane Katrina, some 20 to 30 percent of children living in the inner city had elevated blood lead levels. Traditionally, to reduce the risk meant to remove the lead—by removing the soil. But excavating and replacing an entire city’s topsoil is a prohibitively expensive procedure, especially for poor neighborhoods such as Tremé, where lead soil concentrations in some areas eclipse 1,000 milligrams per kilogram. By contrast, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers 400 milligrams per kilogram to be hazardous.
An unlikely friend to inner cities has emerged with a promising alternative solution—and help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: conceptual artist Mel Chin. The artist has worked for years to promote an art project that, if realized, would undercut the threat of lead soil contamination in New Orleans. “You can’t make a city lead free,” Chin says. “But to make a city lead safe is the dream.”
In 2006, the Texan-born artist traveled to New Orleans to find out whether he could do anything for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Lead soil contamination has posed a problem for children in New Orleans since before the hurricane, and it has always been a poorly understood issue with little visibility. Chin pledged to help.
“In every major industrialized city, architects are going back into these cities that have been disenfranchised, and they’re going back into the same situation: How do you save the soil?” Chin says. “The soil’s essentially still good, except for this horrible lead that’s in the top two centimeters.”
Chin worked from the start with Tulane University bioenvironmental scientist Howard Mielke on a solution. He also collaborated with Andrew Hunt, an environmental health scientist at the University of Texas at Arlington who specializes in geochemistry and inhalation toxicology, to build upon a procedure used by the military to trap lead in the soil on military bases.
If “dig and dump” is the term for the pricey process of simply replacing all the contaminated soil wholesale, then the procedure favored by Chin’s team might be called “sprinkle and bind.” Chin himself calls it TLC: treat, lock, and cover.
By this method, an organic phosphate mineral called Apatite II is sprinkled over contaminated soil. The phosphate binds the lead, transforming it into a form of lead phosphorus called pyromorphite. Pyromorphite is both easily formed and highly insoluble. Ideally, residents and city workers could simply till the phosphate into the ground, rendering the lead harmless to children who might ingest it. (A generational solution, the treatment does not need to be reapplied.)
“At some point, you’ve got to go beyond measuring risk to intervention,” Hunt says. “Primary prevention is the only real way to proceed with reducing pediatric blood poisoning.”
Lead mobilization was part of Chin’s artwork back in the early 1990s. After having exhibited at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 1990 and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York in 1991, the artist abandoned object-making to focus on politically and environmentally relevant conceptual works. For example, in a 1991–1993 project titled “Revival Field,” Chin planted hyperaccumulators—plants that draw heavy metals from the soil—in a landfill in St. Paul, Minn.
For “Operation Paydirt” (as he calls his New Orleans initiative), Chin coupled science and politics. In 2007, he launched the “Fundred” drive, whereby he enlisted schools and children to fill in blank drawings of hundred-dollar bills—which he will in turn deliver to Congress as a massive petition. Chin aims to ask for an exchange of $100 per Fundred, or $300 million for 3 million children’s signatures.
“The concept didn’t take more than 20 minutes to conceive,” Chin says. “It will be drawings of the people. It will start in New Orleans. It will start in a place that was compromised, not a museum. It would be telling people about a bad thing—it was a tremendous amount of education that was necessary—but to offer that and offer something that was a response.”
To build the hype, in 2008, Chin installed a fabricated 10-foot-diameter bank-vault door in a cutout of the façade of a residence in New Orleans’ St. Roch neighborhood. Called the Safehouse, it served as a headquarters designed to hold Fundreds and host visitors and celebrities. As the drawing campaign commenced, a vegetable oil–powered armored truck was dispatched in 2009 to collect more than 350,000 Fundred bills at participating schools and institutions.
The effort, which stalled when funding slowed in early 2010, was enough to draw the attention of the EPA. In 2009, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) asked the EPA to address a complaint about elevated lead levels in West Oakland, a constituency she represents. Federal on-scene coordinator Steve Calanog—the person the EPA calls in for oil spill and disaster cleanups—said a colleague working on metals mobilization tipped him off to Chin’s work.
“I was taken by his messaging and the way he was framing and communicating the message to communities,” Calanog says. “He was interested in my approach and how we were going to prove and demonstrate that this was a viable option in terms of the laboratory work I was planning on doing.”
In August 2010, Calanog began work to “bench-test” Chin’s TLC process in West Oakland—the first time any entity has proposed using this approach in a residential setting. Chin and Calanog met with Rep. Lee and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in October; of the many sites and demonstrations that Jackson and Rep. Lee saw that day, Calanog says, it was Chin’s Operation Paydirt project they described to the evening local news.
Calanog notes that with the TLC process, what’s good for soil is good for landscape architecture. “Cover,” in the scientific sense, means erecting a barrier between the toxin and humans—typically, concrete or asphalt. But for Oakland, Calanog and Chin are considering environmentally and architecturally sensitive ways of restoring the environment while building in cover. “After we treat the yards, we want to work with landscape designers to find drought-resistant, native species or raised planter beds to use instead of grass,” Calanog says.
Chin says that his team should have clear results from the EPA testing stage this spring and that the early returns are promising. A similar testing effort specific to New Orleans’ soil is also now under way, thanks to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant. Chin says that he would like the EPA to own Operation Paydirt and the Fundred drive. As a conceptual artist, he says, he hopes to transition from the person who catalyzed the project to the figure who delivered it to the people who will perform it.
“It’s an elegant solution. You don’t need a yearly application. No incredible amount of expertise,” Chin says. “There are some safety issues with rototillers—but I think people can handle that.”