Get the Lead Out

Posted on behalf of Eric Saltmarsh, KOB Board Member

Lead contamination is an ongoing problem in our country. A naturally occurring metal, lead can be found anywhere – in the ground, in the water, in the air, even in our bodies. While efforts have been made to reduce the amount of lead contamination in Oakland, the continued presence of lead in our community remains a serious public health hazard.

Lead contaminants exist in the soil, especially in industrial areas of Oakland, where industry-related pollution, in excess of normal background levels, has yet to be remediated. Excessive amounts of lead can also be found in the ground near freeways and other well-traveled roadways, due to the wide-spread use of leaded gasoline in our vehicles, prior to the banning of leaded gas in 1996. While the ban has been in place for almost two decades, the lead that built up prior to the ban leached into the soil, where it continues to exist to this day.

Lead-based paint is another main source of lead contamination. It’s estimated that 85,000 current homes built in Oakland prior to 1978 were painted with lead-based paint. Paint chips and dust from lead-based paint can pose a health risk, especially in children, so care should be taken when cleaning surfaces or removing old paint.

While the government has banned the continued use of lead products, much of the historical damage from those products has yet to be dealt with. West Oakland’s challenges are particularly serious since West Oakland includes within its borders a number of contributors, such as the Port of Oakland and adjacent railways, the former Oakland Army Base, current and former industrial sites, major freeway arteries, and many houses containing lead-based paint.

Why is lead contamination a serious public health hazard? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, ingesting or inhaling lead particles can result in lead poisoning. Early symptoms of lead poisoning include:

  • Persistent fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach discomfort and/or constipation
  • Reduced attention span
  • Insomnia

While lead poisoning can be harmful to adults, it can be particularly dangerous to children, especially those under six years of age, potentially resulting in:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system
  • Behavioral problems
  • Anemia
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Hearing loss
  • Hyperactivity
  • Developmental delays
  • In extreme cases, death

There are no easy solutions to remove lead from our community, but there are some innovative approaches at hand.

Several years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency organized a creative effort, called ‘The Fishbone Project,’ to address lead contamination in the soil of the South Prescott neighborhood in West Oakland. Crushed fish bones were mixed with the lead-contaminated soil, allowing the calcium phosphate in the bones to combine with lead in the ground, creating ‘pyromorphite,’ a harmless mineral. The soil was then capped with sod, dirt, or mulch. This approach is seen as an efficient and relatively cost-effective remedy (the Fishbone Project was estimated to cost around four million dollars).

Another creative solution to address soil-based lead is called ‘phytoremediation.’ In this approach, certain species of plants (e.g., sunflowers) are planted over a contaminated site and allowed to grow, absorbing lead in the soil into their tissues. The plants are then safely removed from the site and properly disposed of, so they cannot be consumed or used as mulch. While this method does reduce lead levels, it requires several seasons to work, so it is not seen as a ‘quick-fix.’

For local gardeners who may be concerned about lead in the ground, try using properly constructed planters or containers, using ‘clean soil’ rather than planting crops or flowers directly into the ground. This is easy and much less expensive than approaches that attempt to remove the lead from the ground. Local nurseries carry numerous products you can use and the staff can give you some valuable advice, too.

While the government has a responsibility to participate in the solution to lead contamination in order to make our environment safer, there are steps you can take, if you believe you have a lead problem in your home or on your property.

If you suspect you have a lead contamination problem, you should definitely check out the additional sources cited at the end of this blog, as well as other sources of information, to improve your knowledge of the issue. If you live in Alameda County, you might also contact the Alameda County Environmental Health Department (phone: 510-567-6700) for advice or help in assessing your situation.

If you have a house that was built prior to 1978 and you are concerned about lead-based paint, you might consult with a lead-safe certified contractor about repainting your home, ensuring that any paint chips and dust are handled and disposed of in a proper manner.

If you suspect lead poisoning, seek medical attention immediately.

Lead contamination is a public health hazard that affects us all. So, let’s ‘get the lead out’ and address this serious issue, to minimize future health risks to our families, our neighbors, future generations, and ourselves.


Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.

We encourage you to share your thoughts in the reply section. We welcome the dialogue and learning of others’ perspectives.



Additional sources.

  1. If you want to learn more about lead contamination in Oakland, the following website is a good place to start:

  1. If you’re interested in learning how to deal with lead-based paint that may be in your home, the Alameda County Community Development Agency, Healthy Homes Department has a website with a lot of useful information and advice:

  1. You can find additional information on health risks associated with lead contamination on the EPA website, at:

  1. The South Prescott Community Advisory Group has a wealth of information on the Fishbone Project:

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