The heroism of the lonely PhD

Deep in a magnificent USA Today team investigation last week was hidden a revelation: How a PhD doctoral candidate doing historical research discovered — and publicized — a massive threat to public health.

From Ghost Factories:

In April 2001, environmental scientist William Eckel published a research article in the American Journal of Public Health warning about the dangers of old smelting factories. While working on his Ph.D. dissertation, Eckel had identified a historical smelting site unknown to federal and state regulators and wondered how many other sites had been forgotten over time, their buildings demolished or absorbed by other businesses.

Eckel used old industry directories, which he cross-referenced with EPA databases, to come up with a list of more than 400 potential lead-smelting sites that appeared to be unknown to federal regulators.

Eckel confirmed that 20 of the sites' addresses were factories — and not just business offices — using Sanborn fire insurance maps, which detail the historical uses of individual pieces of property. An additional 86 sites were specifically listed in directories as "plant" locations. He paid to have soil samples tested from three sites in Baltimore and five in Philadelphia. All but one of the samples exceeded the EPA's residential hazard level for lead in areas where children play.

Eckel's article warned that the findings "should create some sense of urgency for the investigation of the other sites identified here because they may represent a significant source of exposure to lead in their local environments." The research indicates "a significant fraction" of the forgotten sites will require cleanups — likely at state and federal expense — because most of the companies went out of business long ago.

The study points the finger at the EPA.

Of the 639 sites, 170 (27%) were listed in the US EPA Facility Index System database; 469 sites were not listed. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, US EPA regional offices reported having files on 14 additional sites (2%). After these 14 sites and 16 “officeonly” locations were eliminated, approximately 435 of the 639 sites identified in the literature search (68%) were apparently unknown to the US EPA. A further 5 sites (all in Massachusetts) were listed by state authorities among the 8 states with the largest number of sites, which left about 430 previously unrecognized potential sites (67%).

The EPA, perhaps due to a lack of resources, hasn't done much. But give credit to USA Today for its huge follow-up. The LA Times in the past has claimed to be the best at "gang-tackling" reporting, but in this case it clearly has competition. Amazing story.

Here's an image from a fire in a smelting factory in Philadelphia in l952 that "sickened dozens." . 


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