Durham residents discuss Duke findings on unsafe lead levels at parks in historically Black neighborhoods

Mill houses in Walltown. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Mill houses in Walltown. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Duke researchers found levels of lead higher than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximums in three Durham parks located in historically Black neighborhoods.

Walltown, East End and East Durham Parks contain highly unsafe amounts of lead, according to a report written by former master’s student Enikoe Bahari, Nicholas ‘22. The project was supervised by Dan Richter, professor of soils and forest ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment. 

Though the report was published internally at Duke in December of 2022, the community association of the Walltown neighborhood held a Durham-wide meeting on Monday to discuss the findings from the report. The meeting was held after a neighborhood resident discovered the thesis on their own, according to Brandon Williams, Trinity ‘06 and Divinity School ‘13 and another resident of Walltown.

Duty to report findings

The Walltown Community Association believes that the University had a duty to report the findings to neighborhood residents at the time of discovery. Richter said that he had reported similar findings about lead levels in Durham from prior research papers to city officials. He added that it was the City that gave Richter access to public land for research purposes for the parks research, but that the findings had not been peer-reviewed yet. 

According to the WCA, neither the City nor Duke ever notified residents about the findings directly from the parks, and it was the independent discovery of the master’s project report by a Walltown resident that prompted the WCA to contact Richter for initial talks.

Richter gave a private presentation to WCA members on May 22, after which the WCA wrote an email on June 1 to the University and the City, Williams said.

“The delay in communicating the health risks posed by lead in the soil of Walltown, East End and East Durham Parks is a failure on the part of Duke and the City of Durham,” the WCA wrote in the email. “Had residents not discovered the study on our own and taken the initiative to learn more, it is unclear when exactly the public would have been informed.”

The WCA received responses both from the City of Durham and Nicholas School Dean Toddi Steelman acknowledging the issue, according to Williams. 

“I very much regret the distrust we have created and the impression that we are not concerned about residents’ health,” Steelman wrote to Walltown residents. Steelman also pledged to “carry out community and government outreach as a priority in the next 30 days.”

According to Williams, the City of Durham now plans to conduct its own investigation through the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

But given the “immediacy and urgency and unknown” of the timeline to rectify the issue, Williams said, the WCA decided to host a Durham-wide public meeting where Richter could present the findings to a broader audience. 

Lead levels in Durham parks

During the meeting, Richter said that he’d been studying lead hot spots in Durham since 2019, starting with streetside soils and adjacent to older homes. He added that, just like with the study on parks, Richter circulated his results to Durham city officials and received acknowledgement.

Richter’s research group noticed in 2021 that four of Durham’s parks are located at the site of four now-defunct waste incinerators from the late 1930s, which prompted him to study lead levels in these parks. 

“Many cities and towns across America turn to municipal incineration to burn garbage and trash,” Richter said. “It was the go-to way.”

He added that according to old editions of Durham newspapers, in the early 1950s, the incinerator locations in Durham were converted into playgrounds and parks. 

“From local newspaper articles, we have direct evidence for the disposal of incinerator refuse on these sites, along with the removal and addition of soil, gravel, and other landscaping materials,” the report read.

The report added that the health risks associated with lead “pose a serious environmental justice problem,” because marginalized communities tend to have higher lead exposures than the rest of the population and have been “systematically driven to live and work in and around structures” that are sources of lead. 

The median lead level in the soil across the three parks was 93 parts per million, and the average was 201 parts per million, according to the research. The EPA’s acceptable hazard thresholds are 100, 400 and 1200 parts per million for gardening areas, residential play areas and residential non-play areas respectively.

Geographic background levels for lead levels are between 0 and 30 parts per million, according to the report.

In all three parks, the incinerators were located in “now highly-trafficked areas such as grass fields, sports facilities, playgrounds and picnic areas,” the report added. Each of the parks had hotspots where lead levels were particularly high. Some of these hotspots may be attributed to the direct presence of incinerators, while others can be attributed to other activities, such as paint and sign production. 

In East Durham Park, one hotspot which is located in close proximity to an apartment building had lead levels ranging from 694 to 2,342 parts per million.

“This is of particular concern because this field is adjacent to an apartment building, and residents appear to use this area to play, garden, and park their cars,” the report read. “This hotspot indicates a large, direct input of [lead] into the soil, possibly from a refuse pile, which supports the possibility that the incinerator may have actually been located near the southeastern boundary of the park and not near the current playground.”

Next steps

Richter proposed a number of directions in response to the discovery of elevated lead levels during the meeting.

“My thoughts are first with families who worry about exposure to lead, first and foremost,” Richter said. “I’m but one person who is trying to use our science so that your kids and their kids get to worry a whole lot less about this persistent toxin as the decades go by in front of us. I do want you to know that.”

He added that all parks in Durham older than 1960 should undergo X-ray fluorescent screening for surface soil. Richter also called for a full review of newspapers and city records in collaboration with historians to understand the history behind lead contamination in parks.

In the short term, Richter said that the City of Durham should add fencing along creeksides in all three parks, and around the entirety of the high contamination area in East Durham Park. He also said that the City should temporarily bury the contaminated surfaces with clean soil and seed for grass. 

“By our estimates, a hundred truckloads would go a long way,” Richter said. “Not a big investment.”

Residents were concerned about the process of working with the City of Durham and why the results were not circulated more widely to begin with. 

Richter noted that the master’s project report was not peer-reviewed, which is usually standard practice before circulating results widely. Richter said that he allowed the circulation to happen before peer review because of the results and his concern, and that he and Bahari are in the process of converting the report into a peer-reviewed document.

“I’m an individual scientist in my laboratory, and I’m very anxious to get my science circulating through our communities through all the neighborhoods of the city,” Richter said. “Our student paper is being circulated. It needs to have the credence that peer review gives it, and short of that it’ll be one piece of the bigger puzzle.”

Residents also asked whether Richter had plans to convert the findings into plain language summaries and data visualizations, to which Richter responded that his group would work on these. 

Richter was also asked to commit to working with University administration and Durham city officials to hold a town hall meeting, to which Richter responded that he would.

“Absolutely,” he answered. “That’s an easy ask.”

Adway S. Wadekar profile
Adway S. Wadekar | News Editor

Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity junior and former news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


Share and discuss “Durham residents discuss Duke findings on unsafe lead levels at parks in historically Black neighborhoods” on social media.