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K-State Today

December 17, 2018

Kansas State University researchers join team investigating childhood lead exposure

Submitted by Sarah Hancock

Public health authorities agree that no level of lead exposure is safe for children, but decreasing exposure is difficult in the more than 3,000 U.S. cities with old housing that contains lead paint.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is funding a three-year, $700,000 project to seek cost-effective interventions that will prevent children in high-risk areas from being exposed to lead. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 500,000 children aged 1 to 5 have blood lead levels high enough to cause behavior, learning and health problems.

Ganga Hettiarachchi, Kansas State University professor of soil and environmental chemistry in the agronomy department, is part of the team led by Christina Sobin at the University of Texas, El Paso, or UTEP. With her $236,409 share of the award, Hettiarachchi will focus on how to prevent lead exposure through soil or dust.

"Ingestion of lead from soil and surface dust is a major exposure pathway of lead in children. This grant will help us identify sources of lead and design low-cost mitigation strategies," Hettiarachchi said.

Her lab, including postdoctoral fellow M. Buddhika Galkaduwa and graduate students Kasuni Gamage and Jay Weeks, will focus on accurately determining lead levels in blood and potential sources such as soil, indoor dust or peeling paint — plus how much of different types of lead have potential to be absorbed by the body. She hopes to harness soil chemistry through amending the soil to make lead less available for absorption. Lowering the so-called bioavailability of lead would translate to less lead exposure for children.

"Stabilizing lead using soil amendments will reduce the human health impact and environmental risk by inducing reactions that convert soil lead to forms with low bioavailability," Hettiarachchi said. "I am excited about this project, as this will allow us to apply knowledge of soil chemistry to address a real-world, widespread concern."

The UTEP-led group is one of only seven universities and public health organizations nationwide that received a grant from HUD's Lead and Healthy Homes Technical Studies Grant Program to improve methods for identifying and controlling residential health risks, including lead-based paint, mold, secondhand tobacco smoke and other indoor contaminants.

Hettiarachchi noted that solving the public health problem of lead exposure requires researchers, public health experts and policymakers to work together and identify practical solutions. Although the project is focused on El Paso, Texas, she hopes to expand these efforts to high-risk neighborhoods in Kansas.

"Our work to reduce human exposure to soil contaminants is ongoing through other projects funded by the Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields program," she said. "High-risk neighborhoods are pretty common. For example, some parts of Kansas City have children with elevated blood lead levels, so we hope this work will help them in the future."

Read more about the project.