Coastal restoration experts have long pointed to the massive amounts of sediment carried by the Mississippi River as the key to staving off Louisiana’s land loss crisis. Now a prominent researcher is promoting the very same material as a solution to another crisis hitting even closer to home: childhood lead poisoning.

“It’s that kind of problem that is very subtle, but extraordinarily costly to our society,” says Dr. Howard Mielke, research professor at Tulane University and president of the nonprofit Lead Lab. “We now know the relationships between the amount of lead in the soil and blood lead, and it turns out blood lead triggers some very serious learning problems for children. They have much more difficulty thinking clearly and getting things right, and as a result they start failing at school which just triggers more problems for the child.”

Mielke’s early research on childhood lead poisoning helped highlight the need to remove lead from gasoline. That lead, released through tailpipes for more than 60 years, lingers in the soils of urban areas where traffic was concentrated.

Children can become exposed by hand-to-mouth activity after touching or crawling on these contaminated soils.    

In response, Lead Lab has started a campaign to boost community awareness of the risk while working to make outdoor play areas safer. The group starts by laying a water-permeable cloth barrier over selected sites, then topping that with six inches of clean soil. Lead Lab recently completed this work at 11 inner city childcare centers in a program supported by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

Lead contamination is a common issue in most American cities, but Mielke says New Orleans has a unique resource at its disposal to help alleviate the problem.

“The Mississippi River is bringing some of the best soil in the world right by our doorstep at a rate of 300 tons per minute on average, and it’s a phenomenal material,” says Mielke.

It is the same material local builders commonly use as fill, and it has a miniscule and very safe lead level. Accessible and inexpensive, Mielke hopes this material can be tapped to a much greater extent by other businesses and groups of neighbors to cover more contaminated soils.

“We have all the material in the world, we just need to encourage people to use it and get it into the city,” says Mielke. “This is a resource that’s used all the time, but we just haven’t thought of it as a tool to make play areas safer.”

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