Mapping Legacy Lead in Urban Soils to Help Improve Children's Health (2019-2020)


Lead poses a serious threat to urban communities, especially among children. For decades, the World Health Organization and the Environmental Protection Agency have raised awareness about risks of lead poisoning, while researchers continue to lower “safe” levels of lead exposure. Despite the removal of lead from paint and gasoline, children will continue to be exposed to lead for many decades to come.

Urban soils are recognized to be the leading source of lead exposure, and the high affinity of lead to soils leaves a long-term legacy. Yet, despite the enormous medical and public health literature on lead toxicity, data on lead in urban soils are notably deficient. 

Project Description

In concert with the North Carolina Lead and Healthy Homes Task Force, this Bass Connections project will produce the first soil lead maps in the state. These maps will serve as tools to identify lead hotspots and guide management of aging construction and new developments.

The project team will collaborate with and enrich the ongoing work by the North Carolina Lead and Healthy Homes Task Force, and meet with lead exposure experts who will advise the project.

The team will sample urban soils in public spaces, parks, school playgrounds, church grounds and other locations throughout Durham using a portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer. The team will then analyze soil samples for lead and other chemicals, as well as physical properties.

Team members will also upload data for the first soil lead maps of Durham via geographic information systems (GIS). The team will then attempt to analyze geographically-based blood-lead concentrations of Durham children and test correlations with the new geographic soil lead map. These efforts will help raise public awareness of soil lead exposure’s impact on human health.

In addition to generating the first soil maps in this region, this study will also help guide city managers in identifying and assessing new sites for greenways, recreational areas and tree planting.

Anticipated Outputs

Manuscripts for publication: scientific review paper on international scope of urban soil lead contamination; research paper on Durham-based blood-lead concentration data; new standard operating procedures for sampling urban soil for lead; first-generation soil lead map of Durham; presentation to Durham City Council; opinion pieces on urban soil lead problems in the Triangle and globally; public guidelines on mitigating urban soil lead exposure


Spring 2019 - Fall 2019

  • Spring 2019: Begin weekly project planning meetings; begin literature review and development of draft manuscripts
  • Summer 2019 (Optional): Perform soil sampling and preparation; begin chemical analysis of soil samples
  • Fall 2019: Perform analysis of geographically-based blood-lead concentration data; implement public outreach; complete manuscripts



Image: Contaminated Soil, by Joey Rozier, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Contaminated Soil, by Joey Rozier.

Team Leaders

  • Heileen Hsu-Kim, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Daniel Richter, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/graduate Team Members

  • Faye Koenigsmark, Civil & Environmental Engg-PHD, Civil & Environmental Engg-MS
  • Xinchen Li, Civil & Environmental Engg-MS
  • Anna Wade, Environment-PHD
  • Jiajie Zhang, Master of Egr in Envrnmnt Egr

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Kevin Tan

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Richard Di Giulio, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Paul Heine, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Bryan Luukinen, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Joel Meyer, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Heather Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/zcommunity Team Members

  • North Carolina Lead and Safe Homes Task Force
  • Megan Hughes, UNC Institute for the Environment
  • Ed Norman, CDC Lead Grant