Her Kensington neighborhood is full of charm. Swank cafes with rustic wood and vintage lighting. Stoops and decks with skyline views. Young parents who bond at parks while their children play.
Jana Curtis, a mother of three, finds excitement in this urban renaissance.
But with it comes a sad reality.
Her daughter was poisoned by lead. The culprit wasn’t paint. Or tap water. But soil — in her own backyard.
“The yard was poisoning my daughter,” Curtis said. “It’s just so horrifying.”
Curtis and her family live in the heart of what was once Philadelphia’s industrial hub. For most of the last century, the “river ward” neighborhoods of Fishtown, Kensington, and Port Richmond, which snake along the Delaware, were blanketed with hulking factories and lead smelters. It was a time when manufacturers used lead in everything from paints to plastics. Lunch-pail laborers walked to work from tightly packed row homes as lead dust spewed from smokestacks, coating sidewalks, stoops, and yards.
Once in the soil, the heavy metal stays indefinitely. Even minuscule amounts can permanently lower a child’s IQ and cause behavioral problems.
At one time, Philadelphia had 36 lead smelters — more than any other city in America. Fourteen alone operated in these river wards.
The lead plants are long gone, either razed or shuttered. But their toxic legacy remains.
Today a development boom is disturbing lead that has sat dormant for decades. Construction crews — unchecked by government — churn up poisonous soil that can spread toxic dust across these gentrifying neighborhoods. This renaissance puts a new generation of children at risk.
In the area’s most sweeping environmental investigation to date, the Inquirer and Daily News tested exposed soil in 114 locations in the river wards — parks, playgrounds, yards. Nearly three out of four had hazardous levels of lead contamination — a problem of previously unknown severity.
In addition, reporters discovered high levels of lead dust on rowhouse stoops and sidewalks near construction sites. In tests taken from a popular neighborhood playground — both before and after digging began at a vacant lot across the street — a once-safe play area was shown to contain lead dust.
Developers are not required to test soil for lead as a routine precaution before disturbing land. Further, no single governmental agency is responsible for making certain a yard’s soil is safe.
Federal, state, and city officials, who have known about lead in the soil here for decades, quibble over who, if anyone, should regulate development within a former industrial area. State and federal officials say they only oversee development and cleanup within the boundaries of known contaminated sites. City officials say they don’t regulate soil.