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Fisher students use their lab skills to test for lead in the Beechwood Neighborhood

Dr. Irene Kimaru
St. John Fisher College
Students Szymon Labecki and Leanne Maltese collecting a soil sample at the Lexington Avenue Urban Farm, a garden that supports the organization Foodlink, during a St. John Fisher College chemistry class project conducted in fall 2017.

A dozen homeowners in the Beechwood neighborhood will learn soon whether lead contaminates the soil around their homes, thanks to the work of chemistry students from St. John Fisher College.

Eight students in an analytical chemistry course with Professor Irene Kimaru will test the soil -- especially gardens -- around the homes for lead. The class also involves teaching students how to communicate the results of the test to homeowners in an easy to understand manner. After students determine the concentration of the lead, they write letters to the homeowners that include the results of the tests and what the homeowners can do to lower the concentration of lead in their soil if any is present.

"We try our very best to use very simple language,” Kimaru said. “We don't use very scientific terminologies when writing the letter to the homeowner and do our best to describe everything that we did in a way that they would understand."

One of the homeowners who volunteered to have soil tested for lead was Beth Sieber, a nonprofit administrator and consultant who has lived in the Beechwood neighborhood for 14 years.

Sieber, who is on the board of directors for the Beechwood Neighborhood Coalition, found out about Fisher’s soil testing project through a coalition meeting. Sieber said that she volunteered because she wanted to help students learn and because she had found elevated levels of lead in her soil in 2004, when she bought her home.  

"I had the soil tested when I bought the house and there was some lead found in the soil around the house. So I haven't done any gardening of anything edible except in flower pots,” Sieber said.

Sieber hopes that the lead tests will be able to determine whether it is safe to cultivate edible outdoor plants in her soil. "I was curious because if I found that the soil is a lot better or perfectly fine, maybe I would plant some raspberries or something like that," Sieber explained.

Sieber also hopes that the college students learn from analyzing the soil around the Beechwood community, while helping the community to become healthier.  

"Certainly it's a good opportunity for the college and the community to connect and a great opportunity for students to gain real life experiences that may help them in internships or job interviews,” Sieber siad. “And certainly the community can benefit from what the college has to offer.”

Although this is the first time that the analytical chemistry class is conducting soil analysis in the Beechwood area, students have done soil tests around the Rochester area for as long as Kimaru has been teaching the course. Last semester, students in the class tested community gardens at Foodlink, an organization that distributes food throughout the community.

The course is part of service learning at St. John Fisher, which aims at enhancing students’ learning by applying their knowledge to help the community. This semester, Fisher’s service learning classes are focused on serving the Beechwood and EMMA districts in the city of Rochester.  

Andrew Rosso, a senior biochemistry major, said that he really likes the idea of service learning and hopes to help the community in his future career as a doctor.

Before taking analytical chemistry, Rosso has no idea what service learning was. Now, Rosso realized that service learning is using your knowledge to help the community. Rosso’s class got to use their lab skills to help Foodlink, an organization that distributes food across the Rochester community, by testing their community garden for lead.

"I think any way you give back to the community is very rewarding and it's just a nice thing to do when you're in a better spot than they are," Rosso stated.

Senior Krista Hirsch also likes the idea of integrating service learning into a lab course and said that the soil testing was her favorite part of the course. "I think it's cool that you get to help out your community while also taking a class and learning."

Hirsch, who was also part of the class that tested Foodlink’s garden, liked how the class emphasized teamwork, since it was a big class effort to test several areas of the garden for lead. Hirsch was surprised at how varied the concentration of lead the class found was, with lead nearly absent in some areas of the garden but high in other areas. 

In 2011, several professors published the results of the lead soil testing for four semesters of classes, between 2008 and 2010. The study showed consistently elevated levels of lead in Highland Park and at the Clara Barton School.

For the 2008-2009 semesters, the majority of the lead concentrations measured at the two locations were not only higher than the recommended play area standards (400 parts per million), but almost half were higher than the recommended standards for non-play areas (1,200 parts per million), as set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.   

Kimaru attributed the elevated levels of lead in the soil around Rochester to the lead paint on the exteriors of old homes and buildings. This paint wears down, accumulates in the soil, and can eventually spread out away from the home.

"With time, what happens is that the paint on the exterior withers or the paint can flick off the walls,” Kimaru explained. “And when it flicks off, it falls and further increases the concentration of lead near the building."

Although lead paint was banned in 1978, 91 percent of all the homes in the city of Rochester were built before 1980, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. Therefore, many of the homes contain lead paint. Kimaru also attributed the high lead levels to leaded gasoline, which was banned in 1995, but is still present in the soil.  

Lead poisoning has been shown to lower IQs, create speech and language issues, and cause chronic seizures. Lead poisoning is a problem in Rochester’s youth, with 206 children testing positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood in the year 2015, according to the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning. That’s an increase from 2014, when 139 children tested positive.

If elevated levels of lead are found if the soil, Kimaru says that there are two solutions to prevent it from harming people. "If [homeowners] have young children, we encourage them to grow grass, don't leave any soil exposed...The other alternative is to get rid of all that topsoil in the yard and bring in fresh soil," she said.

This story by Evan Bourtis is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, and readers.