Science storytelling: Soil lead, community, place, and the power of transdisciplinary collaboration
In 2012, USA Today published an investigative report – Ghost Factories – that brought attention to elevated levels of lead in soil in residential areas surrounding sites with a history of lead smelting. Smelting can release lead particles into the atmosphere, which can settle on the soil. Soil acts as a reservoir, or a sink, for lead in the environment, but can also become a source to human populations when soil enters our nose or mouth. One former smelter site identified in the report is located in Newport, KY. Students from the Environmental Science Program and Journalism Department at Northern Kentucky University collaborated on a follow-up study to address this important public health concern. Environmental Science and Journalism students worked jointly to recruit study participants in the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the former smelter site. Environmental Science students used handheld x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzers - the same technology that was used in the USA Today report - to quantify soil lead. This work builds upon earlier testing by intensively studying the soil lead patterns at a very fine spatial scale. Journalism and Environmental Studies students worked to produce compelling pieces of science communication aimed at a broad audience.
Preliminary findings show that all properties tested have soil lead values that exceed the EPA guideline for children’s play areas (400 ppm) as well as recent recommendations for urban gardening (100 ppm). Compared to study sites in nearby Cincinnati, OH, sites tested in the immediate vicinity of the smelter have higher average soil lead readings. Soil sampling results were provided to study participants through detailed maps illustrating the distribution of lead in the surface soil. Although past lead smelting activities likely contributed to the elevated soil lead concentrations in Newport, KY our findings do not address the source of lead to the soil. Multiple sources of lead, including our past use of lead-based paint and leaded gasoline, contribute to urban soil lead loadings. All past and present sources of lead to the environment must be considered when examining the current distribution of lead in urban areas and how they relate to features of the urban environment. The results of the soil lead testing and the impact of past industrial sources of lead on communities have been reported in local news outlets. Transdisciplinary collaborations that bridge environmental science and journalism have the power to highlight important environmental issues through science storytelling.