But the problem of lead contamination goes well beyond a single playground. It’s appropriate to see lead poisoning getting attention from state legislators. Sen. J.P. Morrell called a Senate Environmental Affairs Committee meeting in New Orleans to talk about the issue.
The problem at Markey Park came to light when pediatricians discovered high lead levels in young patients who frequently played in the Bywater park. New Orleans officials took quick action, shuttering the park and launching the remediation work. The city also is testing other parks and playgrounds, and that’s appropriate.
But testimony at the committee hearing shows that more needs to be done. For example, state law requires pediatricians to test children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years for lead. But senators were told that many do not insist that patients be tested or don’t report results if they fall within safe levels. According to Department of Health and Hospitals statistics, only about 30 percent of New Orleans children were tested in 2008.
While lead contamination in parks has drawn a lot of attention, children are also at risk from lead in soil around their homes. The New Orleans City Council passed a law in 2001 that requires contractors and homeowners removing lead-based paint to inform neighbors and tenants and to take steps to contain lead dust, such as using certain kinds of equipment and sealing doors and windows and covering the ground with plastic sheets.
The law was described by a state official as one of the best in the country. But Dr. Luann White, senior associate dean at the Tulane University School of Public Health, said that there has been virtually no enforcement of the law since Hurricane Katrina.
Dr. White says that the percentage of children with elevated lead levels has actually dropped since the storm, a change she attributed to the gutting and demolition of substandard housing and evacuations that moved young children to less contaminated areas. But that trend won’t hold up if the law isn’t enforced. New Orleans still has older housing stock, and ignoring required precautions puts children at risk.