May 22, 2019 By Laura Hanrahan
The soil at Astoria Park has lead levels far in excess of the safety threshold widely used by public health experts, a recent WNYC study revealed.
High levels of lead in children have been linked to a number of mental and physical side effects, including developmental delays and hyperactivity. In severe cases, it can result in death.
Astoria Park, with its waterfront views and grassy fields, has long been a popular destination for families with young children to play.
To analyze the park’s lead levels, WNYC took 28 samples from from areas of Astoria Park surrounding the Hell Gate Bridge, which was coated in thick layer of lead paint after its construction in the early 1900s. The samples were then brought to the Urban Soils lab at Brooklyn College to be screened for lead.
New York State currently uses a benchmark of 400 parts per million (ppm) to determine whether soil contains an excessive amount of lead. The benchmark was established in the 1990s and is significantly higher than many states across the country which have updated their standards in recent years. California, for example, uses a much lower benchmark of 80 ppm.
Eighty-two percent of the soil collected from Astoria Park exceeded the California standard, with two of the tests showing levels as high as 333 ppm and 401 ppm. Thirty-two percent of samples tested above 150 ppm—the safety threshold generally used by public health experts.
Several samples were taken from tree pits near the Charybdis Playground, which showed lower levels overall. However, one sample contained 328 ppm.
“In my view it’s considered pretty high,” Dr. Zhongqi Cheng, head of the Urban Soils Lab, told WNYC. “Especially if your kids are playing there, getting the dirt into their hand and mouth. I think you do need to minimize the exposure and health risk.”
Despite lead levels in children having dropped nearly 90 percent citywide since 2005, the study notes that thousands of children throughout all five boroughs still test positive for excessively high blood lead levels. New York City officials have insisted for years, however, that soil is not a significant source of lead exposure for children.
City Council Member Costa Constantinides, who represents Astoria, has been aware of the potential health hazard for quite some time. He introduced a bill in the City Council that would require the city to test soil in public parks for lead and remediate any highly contaminated areas.
“This is something we should take seriously,” Constantinides told WNYC. “In cases where there is a proximity to contamination, a proximity to large bridges or infrastructure or other sources of pollution, there should be testing done and steps taken to mitigate this potential danger.”