The Hidden Dangers of Soil Contamination


A few years ago, I developed a site locating on a map all contaminated sites in Montreal, Canada. This was done in an open data hackathon, with a team made of open data specialists as well as McGill University professors specialized in urban development.

I was surprised to discover that data is available for all, at municipal, provincial and federal level. I was also surprised to see that in what appears to be a highly livable Canadian city like Montreal, there were old contaminated sites everywhere. I checked a few addresses. One for example showed on Google Street View a nice colorful kids’ playground, but in fact used to be a contaminated gas station. So we have infants, kids and parents playing on top of chemicals, because the city decided the location wasn’t fit for construction. Nice!

On the southern parts of the city named Griffintown, developers were building luxury condominiums where used to be industrial plants, with Bisphenol A (BPA) and PorpolyChlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) contamination. These chemicals are highly toxic and remain in the environment for a long time, impacting the cardiovascular system, neuronal, cognition and also increases cancer risk.

And this is not limited to Montreal. You can go on Vox’s excellent lead exposure risk map, and discover that many cities like New York City or Philadelphia are blanketed with lead poisoning. This is an acute issue for children. Children that are lead poisoned are at risk of decreased IQ, delayed language acquisition, partial illiteracy, behavioral issues, organ failure, and even death. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention asserts that there is no amount of lead exposure that is considered safe for children.

Screen Shot 2016-12-08 at 2.44.26 PM.png
Map showing areas with extreme risk “10” in NYC

So why don’t we speak about this?

Like most municipal or national issues, cities are constrained by budget. While there are grants available, decontamination is prohibitive in money and time. Additionally, it is often impossible to find good development projects for old contaminated sites. Nobody wants to put millions in a contaminated site. The issue also becomes political, as most sites are located in old, impoverished municipalities. For example, in the United States, environmental poisoning is correlated with several social factors including race, poverty, and lack of home-ownership, with black children being diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels at more than three times the rate as their poor white counterparts.

So old contaminated sites are closed off, the city puts a nice layer of paint with a few “KEEP OUT” signs. This is the equivalent of sweeping the dirt under the carpet.

Sadly, there isn’t much we can do to change the cities we live in. We are paying the price for unbridled industrialization. As an individual though, you can take steps to decrease your exposure (and your family’s) to environmental toxins:

  • Before moving to a new city, consider the age of city, typical wind patterns and levels of water pollution. The ideal city is seaside, bringing fresh air from the ocean, with new houses built to the latest environmental standards. The worse city is surrounded by mountains trapping pollution inside, with centuries-old buildings and factories.
  • Before buying a house or renting a new place, go to your city’s or state’s environmental agency website and see nearby brownfields. Usually contaminants are listed. Look for old industrial plants. You don’t want to live and play in your neighborhood, in the shadows of a ghost factory.
  • Clean up your air with plants or with air filters. Having a water filter is also a good idea.
  • Physical exercise can help your body get rid of toxins.
  • Diets rich in vegetables and fruits can reduce the impact of environmental stressors, and make you less vulnerable to disease. Green tea as well as other antioxidants can also help and reduce inflammation.

I am sure this leads to a series of questions. How can we discuss happy and healthy living if we live near ghost factories? Is it morally responsible to let communities live in areas full of potential contaminants such as lead, abestos, PCBs and BPA? How can we prevent child poisoning? What is the best course of action for brownfields? These questions require critical thought, for communities, administrators and responsible citizens like you.


6 thoughts on “The Hidden Dangers of Soil Contamination”

    1. Lead contamination comes from lead paint dust, lead deposition in soil from gasoline and industrial emissions, and lead based plumbing.

      Use of lead paint was stopped in 1978 and leaded gasoline in 1994. But resident of many cities with older housing deal with its toxic remnants. That’s the case for rust-belt cities, also NYC, Philadelphia, Utica, Chicago etc.

      The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows about this and has buried several times works by various scientists, and very little clean-up has been done. As I mentioned, this is a political issue. Cleaning-up is extremely prohibitive in cost, about $40 per square foot. That’s millions of dollars for any area and nobody can pay for that.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: