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Hunt to study fix for New Orleans soil's lead contamination

Andrew Hunt
Andrew Hunt

A University of Texas at Arlington environmental science professor will soon begin testing a unique method for cleaning up dangerous lead contamination in urban soil with the help of a new $498,138 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Andrew Hunt, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, will use a phosphate called Apatite II to treat plots of vacant land in New Orleans. Years of leaded gasoline use and repeated applications of lead-based paint to the outside of homes have left many areas in New Orleans and other urban environments with unsafe levels of lead in the soil, Hunt said.

Lead exposure can result in behavior and learning problems, such as hyperactivity, as well as other ailments. Babies and young children are particularly susceptible because they are more likely to put unwashed hands and objects in their mouths.

“The type of phosphate we’re using has been shown to work before,” said Hunt. “It binds with the lead in the soil to form a very insoluble lead phosphate mineral called Pyromorphite that, if children ingest it, will likely pass through their system harmlessly.”

Hunt has been studying problems relating to health and environmental hazards in urban and indoor environments for more than two decades. He was recently appointed to serve on a panel of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board.

His new study aims to prove that Apatite II is more environmentally friendly than other phosphates for lead clean up because it does not leach excessively into surrounding soil. Using Apatite II also provides a more cost-effective model than traditional methods, Hunt said.

“At Superfund sites, where clean up has few financial constraints, the method of choice to decontaminate is excavation and removal,” he added. “In an urban environment you don’t have that option as you don’t have lots and lots of money. So, we’ve been looking at low tech, cost effective remediation methods.”

Hunt is receiving assistance from the EPA and colleagues at Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research on the new study.

He is also collaborating with Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project, which is committed to helping make lead-contaminated soil in urban areas safe.

Mel Chin, a conceptual artist, started the nation-wide arts education project to bring attention, engagement and solutions to the lead-contaminated areas of New Orleans. Chin’s team approached Hunt about demonstrating cleanup methods in residential soils and helped Hunt identify suitable sites in New Orleans to conduct testing.

Chin said Hunt’s work has the potential to greatly improve the lives of children in urban areas.

“We are grateful that HUD saw the importance of what Dr. Hunt is trying to do and what we’re trying to do too to alleviate conditions that should not be there, conditions that harm children,” Chin said.