Joplin tornadoes may have stirred up buried lead

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Most of the talk about Joplin, Mo., has been about what the tornado blew away. But lately, officials there are concerned about what the storm dug up: lead.

According to the Jasper County Health Department, the toxic metal — a major health risk for children and workers across the U.S. — has contaminated several properties inside the tornado’s destruction zone, which spans roughly 30% of Joplin.

In tests of 43 properties, 18 showed high levels of lead, prompting the city’s mayor to ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for help in testing for, and cleaning up, the element.

This isn’t the first time officials have grappled with silent hazards brought on by the violent storm, which struck May 22 and damaged almost 8,000 homes and businesses.


In addition to the 162 people killed and many more injured in the storm, an outbreak of a rare but aggressive fungus called mucormycosis attacked 13 victims afterward and probably contributed to several deaths. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website says officials are still investigating the outbreak, possibly the first known “cluster” following a tornado.

Lead’s emergence as a hazard, potentially affecting as many as 1,500 properties in Joplin,is linked to Joplin’s past as a lead-mining town.

“It appears it was used in the early construction of homes,” Joplin Health Department Director Dan Pekarek told the Joplin Globe. “Chat [a lead-mining byproduct] was pretty readily available around here, and they used it. It was used as fill for voids around footings and foundations, and to level out crawl spaces.”

From the 1850s to the 1960s, Jasper County was the most productive lead- and zinc-mining area in the world, and Missouri still leads the U.S. in production, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Joplin was targeted for EPA lead-cleanup efforts in the 1990s, and Pekarek told the Globe it’s possible the tornado damage exposed lead-contaminated areas that had been buried. Much of the soil in the destruction zone had been bulldozed when a reporter for The Times visited Joplin in August, and home and business owners have filed hundreds of new building permits since the storm.

The Kansas City Star reported this week that cleanup could cost as much as $7.5 million and that the city has stopped issuing building permits for highly contaminated properties.

EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks has been working with city officials on funding a potential multi-year cleanup plan patterned on its previous cleanup efforts, according to a news release from the agency. The funding would pay for sampling and excavating the contaminated land.

Under the proposal, the Missouri Department of Natural resources would also help fund the efforts and provide a place for storing the soil.


Satellite images of Joplin, Mo., before and after the tornado

After tornado, Joplin radio stations become lifeline for residents

Mementos scattered by Joplin tornado are gradually returned home

-- Matt Pearce in Kansas City, Mo.