CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo.,
Oct. 18, 2005 – Dr. Michael Aide, professor of physics and engineering physics at Southeast Missouri State University, and Southeast senior Emily Westhoff of Jackson, Mo., have been working on an experiment that could potentially save many children from harm in the Park Hills, Mo., area.
The project, which was started in May, focuses on changing the state of lead found in the soil near St. Joe State Park in Park Hills, Mo., to render it less harmful.
The idea for their research came from a conversation in a “Soils” class when students discussed a similar one being done in Florida, Aide said. The potential problem arises when young children are playing outside their homes, he explained. When soil contaminated with a high lead content goes from hands or underneath fingernails to the mouth, the lead may move into the digestive system and high blood lead levels can result, he said. These lead levels, he added, can create a host of physical ailments, including mental retardation and deformities.
Aide says it is not possible to simply eliminate lead from such a large area. Hence, this project was implemented to try to make the lead harmless for children. By treating contaminated areas with a specific fertilizer, it is hoped that the lead will be rendered less harmful, he said.
“The goal is to make lead no longer biologically available to children, to render it inert so it cannot damage them,” said Aide.
He says research has shown that lead is responsible for such problems as mental retardation and deformities in children. Because of this, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and public health officials have been monitoring children in this area to detect lead levels in blood.
Aide and Westhoff’s experiment involves using high rates of phosphorous fertilizers to “tie up” the lead, allowing it to pass through the digestive system without being absorbed by the body. Many people already use these fertilizers on their lawns, so implementation would not be a problem.
Westhoff, who is majoring in environmental science with an emphasis in biology at Southeast, was interested in the project and pushed for the study. The project became the subject for her internship.
“From this project, I hope that we can become aware of the facts of lead contamination and find ways to prevent further contamination,” Westhoff said. “We want to make people aware that there is a way to remediate the contamination.”
Westhoff says the University has given her a way to gain some great real-world experience in her area of study through the project. Scheduled to graduate in May of 2006, she said she hopes to eventually do lab work in the field of environmental biology similar to what she has done in this project.
Over the summer, Westhoff and Aide worked together to set out plots for the study, putting phosphate fertilizer out to test its effects on the lead. Samples have been compared, with most lab work done at Southeast Missouri State and a small amount sent off to be analyzed.
Preliminary studies that have been completed at St. Joe State Park indicate elevated lead levels, Aide says. Westhoff and Aide say they believe they will have a good handle on the results of the experiment by the end of the year. From there, plans to continue efforts will take place.
St. Joe State Park was once a lead mining site located in the middle of the “Lead Belt.” Park Hills and surrounding areas have abandoned lead tailing piles, which are huge amounts of rock with lead in them, Aide said. These rocks do not have enough lead to be commercially valuable, so they have not been moved. Lead in these rocks is transported through the air, contaminating surrounding soils, Aide explained.
“I really think this has been a great opportunity for me,” Westhoff said. “It allowed me to get hands on experience, carrying out the procedures they do in environmental labs. I’ve gotten to meet the staff members at St. Joe State Park, and also have learned how to collect samples, label them, and map out their locations. Dr. Aide is a very patient and experienced teacher who has helped to explain every step of the process to me.”
More students have recently begun helping with the research, assisting with analyzing the data. Hopes are high that the project will lead to a truly life-saving result for many children living in lead-contaminated areas, Aide says.