A sign at the Ithaca Falls gorge trail by the EPA. Was it enough to keep families safe from the dangers of lead contamination?

ITHACA, N.Y. — City and federal officials involved in the clean-up at Ithaca Falls have downplayed the health risks of ongoing lead contamination at the site, saying recent tests justify the need for soil removal but not for alarm.

[do_widget id= text-55 ]

“There was never anything anyone should have been nervous about in terms of swimming or walking in that area,” said Richard Brasile, spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency. “This is such a small area where (they) found the contamination; this is nothing anyone should be worried about.”

Meanwhile, local environmental advocate Walter Hang has attacked both city and federal agencies for what he has called their woefully inadequate response — one he says has exposed the public to dangerous pollutants. (At least one Ithaca Common Council member, Cynthia Brock, has echoes his worries.)

Who is right? To help us evaluate the two ferociously opposed sides, we turned to Cornell professor Richard L. Canfield, a premier lead expert, for another perspective.

Here were Canfield’s 4 key points about the Ithaca Falls contamination:

1 — Lead BBs do pose major health risks, especially to kids. But the evidence of the BBs is that they are contained to a fenced-off area and that the risk of human exposure is, therefore, minimal.

Canfield said he was very troubled by photos showing lead BBs at the so-called “Island” across from the Gun Hill Apartments.

“The main concern — I was very concerned to see this — is the lead shot in the sand. If a toddler reaches and picks a lead BB and puts it in his mouth that’s a huge problem,” Canfield said. “It’s likely to be enough lead to cause some health effects.”

Hang has photos showing the concentration of BBs across the street from the Gun Hill apartments on Ithaca’s East Hill.

Photo from the “Island” near the Gun Hill Apartments in Ithaca, by the Ithaca Falls
Photo from the “Island” near the Gun Hill Apartments in Ithaca, by the Ithaca Falls

“The problem with lead is that it doesn’t take much to damage the brain permanently,” Canfield said in an interview on Thursday. “It takes relatively little exposure from what we believe, based on the research, to do permanent brain damage.”

But Canfield stressed there’s no indication the public has been exposed to the “Island.” Hang says that his visit to the site showed it has recently been visited; but Nels Bohn, of the city’s Urban Renewal Agency, said that the site is blocked off from public access by a chain-link fence.

“The BBs are not, by definition, a risk to children if they’re going to have to climb a chain-link fence to get to them,” Bohn said in an interview.

2 — There’s some evidence that the lead contamination migrated to the public section of the Ithaca Falls. That is a cause for serious concern.

BBs within the fenced-off area may not be a cause for alarm. But EPA testing shows that pollutants migrated from the “Island” — which is of a higher elevation — down to the gorge wall and around the gorge rim, which is routinely accessed by the public.

EPA test results show that exposure “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment” to the public, according to the EPA’s records. (That set off the ongoing $400,000, 4-to-6 week clean-up of the site by the EPA.)

Canfield says the migration of the contamination to the walls and the rim — which set off the EPA clean-up — is a major cause for concern.

“If they’ve got evidence of lead contamination on the walls, then if people are spending time on those walls they could get lead contamination on their hands and on their clothing and inadvertently ingest some of that lead, and that would pose a health risk,” Canfield said.

Canfield said that the migration of the contamination was a sign that officials must ensure that the contamination stops moving downgradient — or is removed at its root entirely.

“It’s important that that be cleaned up and that whatever’s going on up on the hill gets abated … you want to make sure that’s sealed off or removed,” Canfield said. “If they can’t seal it off completely, it needs to be removed.”

“They tried to seal it off, but it sounds like it didn’t work because now it’s migrated down.”

3 — The EPA is now responding to signs of contamination at the site. But should something have been done earlier?

The EPA spearheaded a multi-million dollar clean-up of the site in the early 2000’s in which they removed huge chunks of soil at the Ithaca Falls.

The federal agency left in 2004. Its spokesperson said that the clean-up had been thorough, and that the agency was moving swiftly in response to the new signs that the contamination had spread.

Canfield agreed that it appears that the EPA is taking the threat of lead contamination seriously. But the Cornell professor said it’s a legitimate question whether testing should have been done earlier that would have revealed the presence of the pollutants.

“The question is when did they test it? What is the follow-up? How good was the EPA oversight and monitoring of the quality of the clean-up from the previous one?,” Canfield said. “… That’s the investigative question: What did the EPA do following the clean-up to ensure that it was a well handled abatement?”

“If that lead has migrated into the gorge and into the rock walls …. why did it happen? And when they did discover it, could they have discovered it?”

4 — Swimming not really a health risk

One possible source of contention, Canfield said, was almost certainly not a cause for alarm: Swimming in the Ithaca Falls.

“I don’t think swimming is a problem… I really don’t think there’s any problem with people swimming in there,” Canfield said.

“… My guess is that the lead levels in the water that’s flowing is not going to be high and lead does not get absorbed through the skin.”

[do_widget id= text-61 ]

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.