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REF NO.: 35

SUBJECT: Memorial University study indicates elevated levels of lead in soils in St. John's
DATE: Oct. 9, 2003

A pilot study carried out by researchers in the Department of Geography at Memorial University suggests that there are elevated levels of lead and other metals in soil in areas of St. John's. Conducted during the summer of 2003, the study investigated the levels and sources of lead and other metals in the urban environment of St. John's.

"Since the preliminary findings indicate that a number of our samples exceed the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) Canadian Environmental Quality guidelines for soils, we have chosen to report our initial results at this early stage of the project," Dr. Bell said. "We have informed the provincial Departments of Environment, and Health and Community Services St. John's Region of the preliminary trends observed in our data."

With owners' permission, soil samples were taken for the study at a number of locations in St. John's. Homeowners in the city, the City of St. John's, and the Avalon East School District (school grounds were sampled) were informed of the results pertaining to their properties.

Soil-lead values in St. John's range from 17 to 7048 ppm (parts per million), with a median value of 203 ppm. The CCME guideline, as adopted by the provincial Department of the Environment for soil-lead, is 140 ppm. A total of 140 samples or 60 per cent exceeded this guideline.

Dr. Bell noted that lead naturally occurs at variable concentrations in the soils of St. John's. He and his team have interpreted the preliminary results as showing that past human activities have resulted in lead concentrations that commonly exceed natural background levels by an order of magnitude or more in the soils of St. John's. He cautioned that these findings are based on a small, targeted sampling program that is insufficient for a rigorous statistical analysis. He said that his research is a starting point for further explorations of this issue. He has also made it clear that the health implications of soil-lead levels exceeding CCME guidelines are beyond the scope of this study but need to be evaluated.

At a technical briefing held at Memorial today Dr. Bell said that common high lead levels in soils in St. John's suggests that:

  • In addition to airborne transport of lead from coal burning and leaded gasoline prior to the 1980s, lead-based paint and coal ash may have been important sources of lead in the soils of St. John's;
  • Many sites, particularly in the downtown district, may have been influenced by a mixture of sources and as a result show higher soil-lead levels;
  • These results suggest that a more comprehensive and statistically reliable survey is warranted.

Support from the provincial government is allowing the study to be expanded by offering property owners in St. John's the opportunity to have samples from their land analysed free of charge. More information on this program was outlined in today's technical briefing to the media.

Copies of the report may be obtained from Dr. Trevor Bell, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland. He can be contacted by e-mail at tbell@mun.ca.

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