History of Lead Contamination in Soil

Written by Allison Currier

North Brooklyn: The Industrial Hub of Brooklyn 

(The photo above is of a brass factory on Franklin Ave) 

I wanted to start this blog with a quick intro: I am super excited to be sharing this research and information with you regarding the work I’ve been doing with Neighbors Allied for Good Growth  (NAG).  As you stick with me through my series of blog posts on GoGreenBK, I will be speaking about various environmental justice topics.  Environmental justice is the specific connection between environmental issues and human rights. Through my articles, I hope you will get a better understanding on how class, race, gender, etc.. intersects with environmental issues.

Let’s hop on in a time machine for a second.  Picture a vast, biodiverse, open space inhabited by the Lenape Indians peacefully living alongside bears, wolves, songbirds, and salamanders, fish, and porpoises and whales in the harbor. In fact, with over 55 different ecological communities.

Then look out your window.

Before the 19th century, the north corner of Brooklyn was owned by only a few families with farms. But as the borough expanded at a great rate, Greenpoint (or Green Point, named for its abundant, green farmland) soon transformed into the “industrial hub of Brooklyn.”



Industries like petroleum, steamboat building, and waste treatment completely changed the character of Greenpoint’s waterfront. During the early to mid 1800’s Greenpoint was mostly Irish and German immigrants.  And by the late 19th century, Polish immigrants populated the neighborhood, developing a ‘Little Poland’ that still characterizes the neighborhood today.

Lead was introduced into manufacturing techniques in the mid 1800’s in Brooklyn.  Historically, It’s said that lead contamination on humans was a factor in the fall of the roman empire.



This rapid growth and industrialization came at a cost for residents and industrial laborers. In 1882 an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle stated thatchronic lead poisoning is becoming more and more important every year, and those giving arise to the greatest number of cases, is the use of lead carbonate (white lead) in paint, and the use of lead pipes for transporting drinking water.The article also noted concern for worker health, as workers had a high incidence of lead poisoning: workers were encouraged to use respirators in workrooms, not bring food or drink in workrooms, not eat any food until they changed their clothing, and pay strict attention to hygiene and washing after work to prevent inhalation or ingestion of lead dust. Despite these precautions, workers regularly observed adverse health effects related to lead poisoning. For example, in 1906, two men who worked the same job at the same lead smelting factory, died at a very young age as a result of lead poisoning; their job was to carry molten metal from mold to mold and were constantly inhaling fumes from the hot lead.

Right around this time in history, lead was added to pant and gasoline.  It’s important to note scientists and health experts proved lead as a serious health issue while.  President Nixon instilled the clean air act, clean water act and founded the EPA in 1970.  Lead was banned from paint in 1978 and from gasoline in 1990.

Fast forward in the time machine to today.  As a result of our city and government ignoring the serious and obvious health effects of lead, we are left with the result of one hundred years of production.

There are five major ways lead effects North Brooklyn residents today:

  1. Greenpoint handles 40% of NYC’s waste through the various transfer stations located along Newtown Creek, which in 2010 was officially marked as a federal superfund site.  To transport this waste, diesel powered trucks travel through heavily populated routes around North Brooklyn and until 1995 lead was being emitted through truck exhaust.
  2. “Historic fill” was a process used during industrialization to fill in land for development.  Land was filled in with a mixture of chemical and industrial waste (including lead) and garbage.  Although you can test your soil and think it’s safe- due to variations in historic fill, contamination can vary widely by spots just inches apart.
  3. More than 60% of NYC’s housing stock was built before lead was banned from paint.  So, as renovations take place in our changing neighborhood, that lead-based paint gets knocked into the air and settles in the soil.  Wind and demolition which spread lead dust are major causes of human exposure to lead contamination.
  4. New York City water is virtually lead-free when it is delivered from the City’s upstate reservoir system, but water can absorb lead from solder, fixtures, and pipes found in the plumbing of some buildings or homes. It is possible that this can increase your potential for exposure.  Phosphoric acid is added to our NYC water to reduce the reduces its corrosive nature which protects the pipes from releasing heavy metals, like lead. Sometimes this is not enough, and old pipes still release lead into water.  To avoid this, run your water for at least two minutes before using.
  5. General sedimentation from North Brooklyn’s Industrial history. From gasoline settling in the soil to toxic waste coming out of unregulated factories into the environment


I tell this historic, environmental story to explain where we came from regarding our highly elevated blood lead levels in Greenpoint and North Brooklyn, and where we are going.  A GCEF project, I am working on at  Neighbors Allied for Good Growth is educating our community about lead contamination and how to be safe in our urban environment.  With environmental protection Agency has stated they are tightening the air emission standards as of 2017 and NAG is excited to be part of keep our community clean!

Do you want to learn more about how to stay safe in our North Brooklyn soil? Attend an upcoming workshop with Brooklyn College Analytical Center where you can receive free soil testing! Also, stay tuned for NAG’s educational toolkit and brochures to learn how to educate our youth on this important environmental health issue! And read about the project on our dedicated webpage!


Questions? Want to get involved? Email me (Allison) at nag.bkyln@gmail.com