Lead Contamination Surfaces in Affluent Atlanta Neighborhood

Elizabeth Burns had just come inside from gardening in 2021 when she caught a TV news report about a rocklike material contaminating a nearby community’s soil with lead. [KFF Health News]

This story also ran on Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

She was stunned. Her own backyard had many such chunks.

The news segment identified the material as slag, a waste byproduct likely from long-closed metal-smelting foundries. Levels of lead were so high and widespread in the mostly low-income, west-side Atlanta community in the TV report that it was later deemed a Superfund site, a designation the Environmental Protection Agency gives to hazardous waste sites requiring long-term cleanup.

But there was no mention of Burns’ Peachtree Park neighborhood within the affluent Buckhead community less than 10 miles away. She turned to Google and found links to Georgia Health News stories about the Emory University team that discovered the west Atlanta problem.

Burns, 61, a psychotherapist who has had health problems since buying her house in 2016, emailed the team’s leader, environmental scientist Eri Saikawa. “I have tons of slag in my Buckhead yard too!” Burns wrote in the email, which included photos.

After testing the soil, the Emory team found high lead levels in her yard. Burns, determined to get help, said she sent the results to the state’s environmental agency, which forwarded the data to the EPA’s regional office. Months later, the federal agency determined the sample contained enough lead to warrant an urgent cleanup of Burns’ yard.