Cosmopolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church has long been a place of trust, a hive of social justice activity on Atlanta’s west side.
A week after church members held an abortion rights march, volunteers gathered outside the stately house of worship, located in Vine City on a leafy corner near the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home, to set up an event with a dual purpose: giving back-to-school freebies to local children, and informing families about lead pollution in the historically Black community’s soil.
As parents walked among the tables with their children, perusing the backpacks, decorative door hangers, popcorn and shaved ice treats, they were offered sign-ups to test their yards for lead contamination or encouraged to step inside the church for tests to see if the toxin is in their blood.
The tests are taking place as the Environmental Protection Agency is cleaning up lead contamination in Vine City and an adjacent neighborhood, English Avenue. In collaboration with community residents, Emory University conducted research that found lead contamination in dark, chunky clusters that turned out to be slag, a byproduct of smelting ore commonly used as fill nationwide before 1974.
The slag is dispersed across 637 acres in the closely-knit neighborhoods where residents are also battling environmental problems from flooding. Since 2019, the EPA has tested about half of nearly 2,100 properties in the study area and found about 40 percent need remediation. In March, the agency added the site to the Superfund National Priorities List, securing more resources for long-term federal cleanup. As of July 22, 145 properties have been cleaned up since last year.
Mistrust among residents has slowed down the EPA’s efforts. A history of disinvestment, displacements from flooding and outpricing of long-time residents due to gentrification city-wide have made some Vine City and English Avenue community members wary of the intentions behind the remediation. Similarly, convincing residents to get their blood tested and to participate in a study by Emory University to understand the community’s exposure to lead has proven difficult.
The EPA has been working to alleviate residents’ fears about the cleanup. Through collaborations with community institutions like Cosmopolitan AME, people are gradually coming on board, and progress is being made in baby steps.
Cosmopolitan AME’s pastor, the Rev. Cynthia McDonald, is new to Vine City. She arrived from Cartersville, a city northwest of Atlanta, in March. Soon after, during talks with community members about affordable housing, she learned of the lead-contaminated soil. Vine City’s representative on the City Council, Byron Amos, told her about the chunks of lead-tainted slag that could be found scattered throughout the area.
“That was a surprise,” McDonald said.
After talking to more residents, she found mixed emotions about the lead contamination and the EPA’s remediation. There is some suspicion around the issue “given gentrification, and it’s a very real thing right now,” said McDonald.
“To even think that Dr. King’s home sits right next to our church parsonage gives a lot of context to many of him and others who live in that community who were activists, who were just heroes in my book,” McDonald said. “And to be walking the same path in the same area is absolutely fascinating.”
McDonald learned that the soil in some properties surrounding the church had already been tested, but not at the church itself.
Soon after her arrival, she volunteered for Cosmopolitan to be the first to host a faith-based event with the EPA and Emory to encourage residents to test their soil and blood. She also prioritized testing the church grounds, given how often residents gather there. Preliminary test results by Emory found high levels of lead and arsenic at Cosmopolitan. Days before the back-to-school event, the EPA tested dirt from the church’s grounds to see if remediation would be needed.
In collaboration with Historic Westside Gardens, a community-run nonprofit that promotes sustainable eating, Emory researchers are trying to collect 140 participants for a children’s health study. The goal is to estimate children’s soil ingestion rates to better understand and reduce children’s exposure to lead and other toxins in Vine City and English Avenue. At the partnership’s first event in April, three families signed up to participate in the study, and seven people got their blood tested, said environmental scientist Eri Saikawa, the study’s lead researcher.
At Cosmopolitan’s event at the end of July, made festive with a bouncy house, a food truck with hot dogs and a DJ playing pop hits, 45 people got blood tests, and six families signed up for the Emory study. A total of 65 families attended, the EPA said, and two new families requested soil sampling.
What’s so bothersome, McDonald said, is that people are talking about the contamination without truly knowing if or how they are affected by it.
Getting their blood and soil tested, and getting results back, helps to make the case that the lead contamination is real and not part of a plot to push them out of their homes, she said.
“There’s something about having an awareness of what’s going on with my body, with my community, with my temple that is very, very sacred to me,” McDonald said.
The harmful neurological effects of lead exposure are especially dire among children younger than 6 years old, given their rapid brain development. They’re also most likely to put lead-contaminated paint or soil in their mouths.
Dr. Ziad Kazzi, a medical toxicology specialist involved in Emory’s study, expects low blood lead levels from the samples because of the country’s progress since the 1970s in mitigating lead hazards. Still, he said those lower levels can lead to subtle developmental health problems in children that can be hard to detect than more direct symptoms of high blood lead levels such as seizures, severe developmental issues or auditory neuropathy, a rare kind of hearing loss.
“They’re more subtle [at lower levels] because then they become developmental delays in reaching milestones at school, attention, memory, some of learning skills, or growth,” said Kazzi.
According to a study co-authored by Saikawa in 2020, many children in higher-risk areas of Georgia are not screened for blood lead levels. The Georgia Department of Health identifies Fulton County, where most of Atlanta sits, as having one of the state’s highest blood lead level rates. Using a more precise screening index, Saikawa identified Georgia census tracts where children are most at risk for low-level lead exposure. She found 18 high-priority areas, English Avenue and Vine City among them.
“Now, given the overall decline in [blood lead levels] in the larger U.S. population, effectively targeting high-risk communities, it is more important than ever to reach those at risk for subtler chronic exposures,” said Saikawa in the paper.
She makes the case that studying the blood lead levels in smaller geographic areas could better identify pockets of high risk for lead exposure that can fly under the radar when assessing larger areas. The CDC has recommended targeted screening to identify high-risk children and neighborhoods since 1997.
Carnetta Jones, a mother of four kids ages 10 and younger, moved her family from Illinois and settled in Atlanta near Cosmopolitan AME. Even before relocating her family, Jones said, she had always been careful not to expose her children to lead. They’re accustomed to never drinking tap water at home and taking a portable pump with them when they travel. In Vine City, Jones is mindful of the dirt she sees many locals use for gardening.
When she heard of the lead contamination in her neighborhood, she knew her family needed to get blood tests. Three of her children told her, “we’re going to be brave,” Jones said, but one needed convincing.
“My daughter is not feeling good about it,” said Jones. “She don’t like needles.”
At the church back-to-school event, another girl sitting near her mom, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 12 years, said it felt like a little pinch. After trying to collect toenail samples, Emory researchers opted for a self-collection device to draw capillary blood to ease children’s fear of needles.
After seeing her siblings tough it out, and with her mom talking her through it, Jones’ daughter relented. Jones and all four of her children got tested at the event.
Some community members say there hasn’t been a large community involvement partly because there are many other issues residents have to worry about. Mold is an issue in the two neighborhoods, primarily because of stormwater flooding, sewer overflows and environmental degradation. With climate change increasing precipitation in the city, urban flooding is a growing concern in low-lying old neighborhoods like Vine City and English Avenue. Water damage can lead to mold growth and increase the propensity to lead and asbestos exposure.
“Atlanta, in general, is an area that is slated to have more intensified flooding and increased precipitation as a result of climate change between now and the year 2050,” said Spelman College environmental scientist Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, co-founder of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, which works to protect greenspace and water quality.
The city is updating old sewage pipes all over town, and parks designed to absorb large amounts of water in the area have mitigated a lot of the flooding they would normally see. But actions to address flooding have also had unintended consequences.
A 16-acre park was developed in Vine City to help alleviate flooding, and it is working. But in the year since the park was created, residents of Villas at the Dome, a 43-year-old apartment complex across the street from the park, were evicted to make room for new town houses.
Surrounding developments like a new Microsoft campus and the neighboring Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the city are adding fuel to a rapid rise in rent and home prices and limiting the amount of affordable housing in the area, but efforts to keep residents in their communities are picking up. Affordable housing in English Avenue started housing local police recruits earlier this year. The EPA allowed Westside Future Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping legacy residents in safe homes in the Westside neighborhoods, to conduct their own cleaning of contaminated properties so that they continue their revitalization efforts. They’ve cleaned up at least 77 properties in the neighborhoods so far.
As for blood lead level testing, the EPA granted Emory University $1.35 million to continue its research of children’s exposure to lead and other environmental contaminants. Emory has given a total of about $30,000 from a couple of grants to Historic Westside Gardens to collaborate with community outreach for the study. Saikawa said she wants to use a chunk of the funds to hire someone from the community to help with outreach efforts and to have an on-site facility where they can be more accessible to the community.
More outreach is needed, especially in schools, to educate families about the risks, get their soil and blood tested and clean up their yards, said Rosario Hernandez, a retired teacher who lives in the English Avenue neighborhood and runs Historic Westside Gardens.
The federal government is prioritizing overburdened communities’ disproportionate impacts of climate change and pollution in its efforts to address climate change.
The Inflation Reduction Act, a surprise bill by Senate Democrats presented last month, dedicates nearly $370 billion to climate and energy spending. If passed, the spending would bring them closer to their goal of using 40 percent of their climate, energy and infrastructure spending on overburdened and marginalized neighborhoods like the Westside. The bill allots $11 billion of its $60 billion for environmental and health inequities for strengthening the Superfund cleanup program.
The funds would be on top of the $1 billion investment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to accelerate the cleanup of Superfund sites across the country that passed last year.
In a statement to Inside Climate News, the EPA said it is “very sensitive to community concerns about gentrification” and that residents’ questions about the timing of the Westside cleanup are understandable, “particularly since contamination from historical foundry operations in the area has existed for a long time.”
The EPA said they will not know if the site will expand more until they conduct more testing under the current study area, “which is why it is so important for us to get residents’ permission to sample.”
“Given the ever-increasing number of residents giving us access to sample their properties, we believe we are continuing to build trust among residents,” the EPA said. “Of course, there’s always more work that can be done, and we continue to explore ways to help reach residents and property owners, build trust, sample and clean up more properties and ultimately reduce the risk for the area’s residents.”
Emory University has found high lead levels in properties in Bankhead, a gentrified neighborhood north of Historic Westside. Saikawa and her team plan to continue testing the soil of properties surrounding the Superfund site in the fall and informing the EPA of their findings.
Amos, the city councilman, showed up at the Cosmopolitan event. He chatted with community members as he made his way inside the church to get his blood tested.
“Unfortunately, that’s going to be the only thing to speed up this process because of the condition of the neighborhood and because of the mindset of the people in the neighborhood,” said Amos. “They’re simply not going to trust.”
Like the others who got their blood tested at the event, Amos is waiting for the results to come back. They were expected in roughly a week.
Cosmopolitan is waiting too. Its EPA soil test results are pending.