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Durham temporarily closing playgrounds in five parks to test further for lead

Credit: iStock

by Lisa Sorg, NC Newsline
April 26, 2024

Durham Parks and Recreation is temporarily closing playgrounds today in Northgate, Walltown, East End, East Durham and Lyon Park to conduct further tests for lead contamination, the city announced this morning.

Playgrounds with liners and 12 inches of mulch were not originally tested, because the material is a barrier between bare soil and children playing. However, to ensure no lead has reached the surface, the playgrounds will be closed until the city receives test results and works with community members on a reopening plan.

Outdoor activities of the Walltown summer camp will be affected by these additional findings and new recommendations. Staff are working on a plan to ensure children are safe and have engaging outdoor activity during camp, according to the city, and “parents will be notified and have opportunities to discuss any changes with staff.”

Lead is a neurotoxin. Chronic exposure can cause permanent neurological and brain damage in children, who are especially vulnerable because they spend time outdoors and often put their hands in their mouths. Adults with high blood levels of lead can suffer from brain, kidney, heart and reproductive disorders.

The parks share some commonalities: From the early 1900s to 1940, they were home to city-owned incinerators, which burned lead-containing material. They are in historically Black neighborhoods and in former redlined areas where environmental racism and health disparities persist. lthough Northgate didn’t have an incinerator, historical records show debris from those operations was dumped there.

As Newsline previously reported, in the fall of 2021, with Parks and Rec’s approval, Enikoe Bihari, then a master’s student at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, sampled soil at Walltown, East End and East Durham parks for lead. The researchers chose these parks because the city had historically operated incinerators there.

Bihari found that many shallow soils, no more than an inch deep, exceeded the EPA’s hazard thresholds for residential play areas. In the three parks tested, the incinerators had been located in what are now “highly trafficked areas, such as grass fields, sports facilities, playgrounds, and picnic areas,” the study reads.

Parks and Rec knew about the results for several months, Newsline reported at the time, but did not tell the public; only when a Walltown resident stumbled upon Bihari’s paper online did the findings become widely known.

The city hired its own consultant to independently test the parks, and found the lead contamination was even more widespread.

Since Bihari published her paper, the EPA has tightened rules on lead contamination, from 400 parts per million to 200 ppm. Based on the new rules, in February, the city fenced off 35 additional areas in the parks; more sections will be cordoned off next week, under the guidance of state regulators.

Northgate, Walltown, and East Durham will require the most additional fencing, according to the city, with East End and Lyon Park requiring less. 

County health officials are especially concerned about lead contamination in East Durham Park because the affected area borders an apartment complex. At a meeting last week, officials said landfill waste could be within the top foot of soil there. City and county officials will need permission to sample on private property.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has placed the parks in its pre-regulatory landfill program and is consulting with the city on a cleanup plan.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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