Blood and urine tests on residents living near the former Black Leaf Chemical plant show mostly normal levels of two heavy metals. But there are still many unanswered questions.
Last year, University of Louisville researchers tested 53 people living near the Black Leaf site for lead and arsenic. The overall results show only two of those people had abnormal levels of arsenic in their urine, and none had abnormal levels of lead in their blood.
The tests were prompted by findings that the soil at the former pesticide plant was contaminated, and that contamination had spread to nearby homes. High levels of heavy metals, as well as pesticides and other chemicals, were found in properties adjacent to the plant, and state and federal regulators have been working to remediate them.
Park Hill resident Shirley Swope was one of the study’s participants. She says she was relieved to get her results, but would like to be tested for pesticides and other chemicals, too.
“[I feel better] to a certain degree,” she says. “Because they still haven’t gotten the pesticide, and until they get the whole 100 percent, then I can feel much better.”
U of L physician Matthew Cave agrees. He says the study has many limitations, and more funding is needed to test for some of the more dangerous chemicals that could have built up in residents’ blood streams—like with pesticides and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both of which were found in the contaminated soil.
“Although these are very positive and good results, suggesting that lead and arsenic levels for the group as a whole weren’t high, I’m really afraid people might get lulled into a false sense of security because we didn’t test for the pesticides, we couldn’t test for the pesticides,” he says. “Which in my mind, again, are kind of the signature chemical.”
Cave and his team also took an informal health survey of the study’s participants, and found that more than half suffered from high blood pressure. Twenty-eight percent had diabetes, and 19 percent had heart disease. These are all conditions that can be affected by numerous factors—like lifestyle and heredity—but Cave says some studies have also linked some of those health problems with pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and arsenic.
Cave’s study also didn’t include children, because of stricter requirements for medical testing on minors. He says that’s potentially another important avenue of study, especially because the “safe” standard for lead in children’s blood is about half of that for adults. Heavy metals and other chemicals can also cause greater harm in children, who are still developing.
Park Hill resident Luther Brown says determining how these chemicals could potentially be affecting the neighborhood’s younger residents should be a top priority.
“Please, just look at the children. There’s so much strength and so many dollars being spent, but we haven’t really fixed the problem until we’ve looked at the next generation of children that are going to come up in this community.”
Cave says he’d like to conduct more tests, including some on children, but funding is limited right now. It’s more expensive to test for pesticides and several other chemicals found at the Black Leaf site, but Cave says he hopes to get money for more testing in the future.