Lead contamination in Oakland

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Lead contamination in Oakland represents a serious and persistent public health threat. Significant portions of the City of Oakland, California have soil lead levels far in excess of 400 ppm, the level that the US EPA suggests remedial action be taken at, and far higher than 80 ppm, the level that California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment suggests action should be taken at.[1] Lead contamination in modern Oakland comes from three primary sources: remnants from previous industry, deposits from pre-ban leaded gasoline, and paint chips from pre-ban leaded paints.[2][3] Not all areas of Oakland are affected equally: West Oakland's contamination is especially severe, particularly near the former Oakland Army Base, and many of Oakland's poorer neighborhoods also suffer disproportionately (since residents often lack the socioeconomic resources to remediate their lawns, or even to repaint their houses).[4]

High blood levels of lead have been linked to a wide variety of health problems, including severe gastrointestinal, neuromuscular, and neurological symptoms.[5][6] These problems are especially significant in children, and childhood lead poisoning can lead to behavioral problems, developmental disorders, and permanent decreases in IQ.[5]

Historical context[edit]

Oakland has long been a center of industry, serving for a time as home of the main Pacific Coast Chevrolet auto plant.

Oakland is a historical center of heavy industry, but much of this industry left the city during the 1980s and early 1990s.[7] This loss of a large number of well-paying blue collar jobs led to a significant decline in the financial situation of many Oaklanders,[7] and most of the closed manufacturing plants did not perform environmental remediation before shutting down, leaving many former industrial areas heavily polluted with lead and other contaminants. The Port of Oakland is the fourth busiest port in the United States in terms of container traffic,[8] and Oakland was also historically one of the largest rail hubs on the west coast of the United States.

Oakland was also an early center of car culture, and extensive highway development began to take place starting in the 1950s.[9] Leaded gasoline was in widespread use in the United States for much of the 20th century, with lead levels gradually being reduced starting in the early 1970s, and leaded gasoline finally being completely banned in 1996.[10] The use of leaded gasoline contributed greatly to lead contamination in Oakland, especially in areas of the city near its highways.[11][12]

Lead-based paints were commonly used in Oakland until its ban in 1978, and as many as 85,000 still extant houses built in Oakland in that time period likely used lead paint.[13] Paint chips or dust from pre-1978 paint contributes greatly to lead pollution in Oakland.[6] A variety of lead paint abatement programs are available in Oakland run by local governments and non-profits, but most have been of limited impact.

Specific areas[edit]

West Oakland[edit]

Oakland Army Base[edit]

The former Oakland Army Base, closed in 1999, is significantly polluted by a variety of substances, including lead. Sources of lead contamination include the weathering of lead-based paint, repainting vehicles, leaded gasoline, and other factors.[14] During the time period when the Army was remediating the base, many areas of the base failed to meet their remediation goals.[14]


There was formerly a large chemical distribution facility run by AMCO Chemical at 1414 3rd Street, just one block south of the West Oakland BART station.[11] From the 1960s until 1989, bulk chemicals were off-loaded from a rail spur onsite and stored in drums and storage tanks before being transferred to smaller containers for resale. Bulk chemical storage facilities included 12 aboveground tanks, two underground tanks, and numerous drums.[11] AMCO's operations heavily contaminated the surrounding area with a variety of compounds, included chlorinated solvents, vinyl chloride, dioxins, PCBs volatile organic compounds, arsenic, manganese, and significant quantities of lead.[11] Some of these compounds have either contaminated nearby properties, seeped into the ground water, or both.[11] The facility has been declared a federal superfund site.[11]

Soil lead levels both at the AMCO site itself and at many nearby residential properties exceed safety limits, and pose a threat to human safety.[11] Most other contaminants stemming from the AMCO plant have not spread as widely as the lead has.[11] As with most other lead contaminated areas, other sources of lead exist, such as lead paint and leaded gasoline.[11]

Verdese Carter Park[edit]

Verdese Carter Park is a municipal park found at the corner of 96th Avenue and Bancroft, in the Elmhurst district of East Oakland, a primarily African-American and Latino community where most residents are below the poverty line.[15][16] Between 1912 and 1975 the bottom half of the site was occupied by a plant that broke open used batteries and melted their lead to manufacture new batteries,[15] while the top half of the site was occupied by a greenhouse.[17] Both properties were acquired by the City of Oakland in 1976, and, after two actions aimed at removing lead contaminated soil, the park opened to the public in 1978.[17] Before the initial city removal actions, testing found as much as 100,000 ppm lead in the soil of the park.[18]

These removal actions were ineffective at making the park safe, particularly because the protective dome the city installed had not been maintained or checked and had cracked.[15] In 1993, the African American Development Organization lead a drive to force the government to evaluate the safety of the park, after a yellow-white substance had begun to ooze out of cracks in basketball courts in the park.[15] Later that same year, the City of Oakland fenced off the park and began testing the area, the EPA was also involved.[15][17] The EPA's evaluation of the site found that soil lead levels as high as 6,700 ppm were still present in the park, as well as zinc levels in excess of 7,450 ppm, and arsenic levels in excess of 700ppm.[15] The evaluation also found that residential properties within seven blocks of the park also had significantly elevated levels of lead, in some cases as high as 10,000 ppm.[15][17] (84% of houses in the area were built before 1950, and were thus extant while the battery plant was still operational.)[15] Elevated levels of lead, presumably from the park, were also found at a nearby elementary school.[15] Although much of the contamination in these areas was likely due to the park, lead paint and leaded gas from nearby highways probably contributed to the contamination as well.[15] An additional series of actions were taken by joint local, state, and federal agencies between 1993 and 1996 aimed to remediate the park and surrounding residential properties.[17] The park reopened in 1996, and cleanup of all nearby residential properties with a soil lead concentration >1000 ppm was performed by AlliedSignal (the owner of the plant, and its final completion was agreed to by the EPA in 2001 in a way that absolved AliedSignal of any future liability.[15][17]

South Prescott[edit]

South Prescott is a hundred year old neighborhood in West Oakland; due to past industrial activity and leaded gas neighborhood soil averaged 800 ppm lead before a major EPA-led cleanup.[19] Some of the most contaminated areas of the neighborhood had soil lead levels in excess of 2700 ppm.[20] The EPA-led cleanup used ground up bones from pollock to convert elemental lead in the soil to pyromorphite, a compound that is harmless even if it is ingested.[19] The cleanup successfully remediated around 95% of residential properties in South Prescott, as well as all public right-of-ways.[21]

Cypress Freeway[edit]

The Cypress Street Viaduct was an unconventional raised two-tiered portion of the Nimitz Freeway that ran through a 1.6 mile stretch of Oakland, bordering South Prescott. The viaduct had been routed through a socio-economically depressed neighborhood originally, and during its construction community groups raised objections that it would destroy an existing vibrant neighborhood, and suggested that a freeway route would not be proposed in a similar way in a wealthier community. Since leaded gasoline was not banned in the US until 1996, traffic through the original viaduct resulted in neighborhoods surrounding it becoming heavily contaminated with lead.[22]

The viaduct was extensively damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. As part of its earthquake relief efforts, the federal government allocated some $700 million to reconstruct the viaduct, with its route shifted somewhat to the west into another pre-existing neighborhood. A variety of community groups led by the Church of the Living God Faith Tabernacle and the Clean Air Alternative Coalition filed suit against the federal government in 1993 in an effort to require the reconstruction of the viaduct to reposition it in a way that would minimize its effect on the surrounding community, arguing that its suggested placement would have a disproportionate effect on predominately minority communities, including placing a heavy load of lead and other pollutants on them.[23][24] The lawsuit was not successful, but an out of court settlement did somewhat alter the placement of the reconstructed freeway.[22][24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Young, Alison (10 March 2013). "EPA fails to revise key lead-poisoning hazard standards". USA Today. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  2. ^ Young, Stephanie. "Battling lead contamination, one fish bone at a time". Coast Guard. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  3. ^ Eisler, Peter. "Ghost Factories: Smelting and Lead Contamination". USA Today. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  4. ^ McClintock, Nathan (1 November 2012). "Assessing soil lead contamination at multiple scales in Oakland, California: Implications for urban agriculture and environmental justice". Applied Geography. 35 (1–2): 460–473. doi:10.1016/j.apgeog.2012.10.001.
  5. ^ a b "Lead poisoning". MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. NIH. Retrieved 10 August 2013.
  6. ^ a b Thomas, Madeleine (12 April 2013). "A caution for Oakland's urban gardeners: lead in the city's soil". Oakland North. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  7. ^ a b Payton, Brenda (8 September 2010). "Oakland's Industry Disappeared—and So Did Middle Class". Bay Citizen. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  8. ^ "Port of Oakland – Maritime". Port of Oakland. Archived from the original on 8 August 2013. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  9. ^ Norman, Jeff (2006). Temescal legacies : narratives of change from a North Oakland neighborhood. Oakland, Calif.: Shared Ground. ISBN 9780977889303.
  10. ^ "Leaded Gas Phaseout". EPA. Archived from the original on 3 June 2008. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Superfund Site Overview Amco Chemica, Pacific Southwest, US EPA". EPA. Retrieved 10 August 2013.
  12. ^ Mielke, Howard W.; Laidlaw, Mark A.S.; Gonzales, Chris (1 September 2010). "Lead (Pb) legacy from vehicle traffic in eight California urbanized areas: Continuing influence of lead dust on children's health". Science of the Total Environment. 408 (19): 3965–3975. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2010.05.017. PMID 20542539.
  13. ^ Russo, John. "A CENTURY OF WILLFUL NEGLIGENCE How the Lead Paint Industry Has Poisoned America's Children" (PDF). The Legal-EASE. Oakland City Attorney's Office.
  14. ^ a b "Final Environmental Baseline Survey for Transfer" (PDF). MWH Americas. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Final Report. Appendix F: Institutional Frameworks case Study". Washington State Area-Wide Soil Contamination Task Force. B. 2003.
  16. ^ "Verdese Carter Community Garden". City of Oakland.
  17. ^ a b c d e f "Superfund Site Overview Verdese Carter Park, Pacific Southwest, USA EPA". EPA. Retrieved 10 August 2013.
  18. ^ Wesolowski, Jerome J.; Flessel, C. Peter; Twiss, Suzanne; Stanley, Ronald L.; Knight, Melton W.; Coleman, Gordon C.; Degarmo, Thomas E. (1979). "The Identification and Elimination of a Potential Lead Hazard in an Urban Park". Archives of Environmental Health. 34 (6): 413–418. doi:10.1080/00039896.1979.10667442. ISSN 0003-9896.
  19. ^ a b Barringer, Felicity (20 July 2011). "To Nullify Lead, Add a Bunch of Fish Bones". New York Times. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  20. ^ Seltenrich, Nate (5 August 2011). "How safe is your soil?". Grist. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  21. ^ "West Oakland Lead Cleanup Completed" (PDF). EPA. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  22. ^ a b Kay, Jane Holtz (1998). Asphalt nation : how the automobile took over America, and how we can take it back (2e ed.). Berkeley, Calif. [u.a.]: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520216204.
  23. ^ Jones, Arthur (26 March 1993). "Put no freeway in my backyard". National Catholic Reporter.
  24. ^ a b Low, Nicholas (1999). Global ethics and environment (1. publ. ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415197359.