Locating Toxic Lead in City Soils with Online Archives (2024-2025)


A recent study found lead contamination in the soil of several of Durham’s city parks, with some instances of contamination beginning 70 to 80 years ago. Pre-1960s city-waste incinerator ash is likely a major source of soil-lead contamination in Durham as well as across the U.S. and internationally. However, there is not much active memory of the existence of incinerators because most pre-1960s incinerators were closed more than half a century ago.

Digitized city records, maps, aerial photographs and newspapers contained in online archives can be used to efficiently and accurately locate sites of potential city-soil contamination based on incinerator information. Given recent advances in chemical analysis, such as portable x-ray fluorescence instrumentation, city officials can rapidly screen potentially contaminated soils that reside near sites of former incinerators. They can also use incinerator and contamination data to link children’s blood lead concentrations with proximity to former incinerator sites. This information will help raise awareness of continued public health threats from contaminated soil as well as help cities and communities engage with legacies of environmental racism and inequality.

Project Description

This project team will identify and map potential soil contamination in city parks in over two hundred cities in the U.S. and Canada. Team members will identify U.S. and Canadian cities that incinerated garbage and trash from the early 1900s through the 1960s and work with specialty librarians to investigate their city-waste history to locate precise sites of incinerators, as well as histories of incinerator operation and conversions to other land uses. 

Team members will use collected information to build a geospatial database linked to public health information regarding children’s blood lead concentrations. Team members will communicate with each investigated city to raise awareness and encourage soil screening for contaminants. 

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed publications; conference presentations; formal communications with local stakeholders and state and federal agencies

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 4 graduate students and 4 undergraduate students interested in environmental science and policy, urban ecology, soil chemistry, data science, environmental history, environmental health, ecotoxicology, chemistry and geographical information systems.

Team members will meet once or twice weekly and participate in readings, discussions and lectures that cover city soil science, soil chemistry and contamination, human exposure and advanced techniques of archival record searches. All students will advance their skills in historical online research, help build a geospatial database and gain experience in dataset management. The team will be involved with communication with cities and environmental protection agencies.

All students will have the opportunity to travel to Jacksonville, Florida, Charleston, South Carolina, and/or Raleigh or Greensboro, North Carolina to sample soil and tour sites.

A doctoral student will work for eight weeks to prepare the research infrastructure and lessons for the fall.


Summer 2024 – Summer 2025

  • Summer 2024 (optional): Expand list of cities with incineration history; compile online newspapers; prepare team resources
  • Fall 2024: Start preparatory lectures, readings and discussions; begin formal archival inquiries; generate database
  • Spring 2025: Continue building database; establish links to original records; archive city and environmental agency communications
  • Summer 2025 (optional): Write and submit manuscript


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team Mapping Legacy Lead in Urban Soils to Help Improve Children's Health (2019-2020).


Image: Grange Park Revitalized, by wyliepoon, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Image: Grange Park Revitalized, by wyliepoon, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Team Leaders

  • Carson Holloway, Duke Libraries
  • Daniel Richter, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Charlotte Clark, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Evan Hepler-Smith, Arts & Sciences-History
  • Jennifer Hoffman, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Heileen Hsu-Kim, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Heather Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Jenna Strawbridge, Duke Libraries
  • Avner Vengosh, Nicholas School of the Environment-Earth and Climate Sciences
  • Brittany Wofford, Duke Libraries

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Bruce Frederickson, Lawyer
  • Gary Smith, Cummings and Smith Environmental Engineering
  • Tyler Sowers, EPA, Research Triangle Park
  • Anna Wade, EPA, Cincinatti, OH
  • Ben Wilson, Environmental Lawyer