News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 24, 2013

Educators warn of lead problem in Terre Haute

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — With gardening season fast approaching, local educators are encouraging the community to get the lead out.

Saturday morning, dozens of participants gathered inside the homey atmosphere of Clabber Girl’s first floor to engage in a community workshop addressing the presence of lead in local soils. Part of Indiana State University’s Community Semester program, the presentation titled “Science Cafe — The Legacy of Leaded Gasoline, Lead-Based Paint, and Coal” featured Jennifer Latimer, professor of earth and environmental systems, as well as question and answer periods.

John Murray, dean of the university’s College of Arts and Science, said Saturday’s program is one of a 40-part series scheduled through spring, with topics ranging from Native American burial mounds to the science of bats.

“Every department is doing their own thing,” he said, surrounded. “It’s really to bring what we’re doing in the academic world into the community.”

Latimer explained that free lead testing is available through the university, and the issue isn’t limited to the paint in old buildings.

“A lot of people are broadly aware that lead content is a problem,” she said.

The “legacy environmental problem” of lead in soils is the result of many contributing factors, from fossil fuels to power plants, she explained. And once in the soil, it tends to remain there.

“The problem with lead is it’s not mobile in soils,” she said.

Children exposed to lead can suffer a wide range of neurological problems ranging from lowered IQ to heightened aggression and learning disabilities, she explained.

Urban gardeners should take this into consideration when planting food plants. Gardening techniques such as raised beds and various fertilizer schedules can all help combat the problem, she added.

“Lead is a serious issue, but it’s probably one of the most manageable,” she remarked.

Jim Speer, director of the university’s Institute for Community Sustainability, said the topic raises a lot of concerns as its cause is multifaceted. Terre Haute, he said, has double the lead problem relative to other communities, and 11 percent of its children under age 6 experience lead poisoning.

“We’re not sure what exactly causes it. It’s probably a lot of contributing factors,” he said, pointing out Terre Haute’s proximity to a power plant, the volume of train traffic carrying coal, and other cars using gasoline here.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or