When Barby Clark learned at church she lived in a lead contaminated area, she became alarmed.
“My grandson now lives with me and he’s under a year old and I was concerned for his health,” she says.
Clark lives with her daughter, Michael, and nine-month-old grandson, Gabriel, in north Omaha.
According to Steve Zivny with the Omaha Planning Department, the Clark household falls in an area where children have the highest blood lead levels in the city. The focus area for lead contamination is primarily between 56th to 42nd streets in north and south Omaha.
Exposure to lead can pose health risks for children.
“There are delayed learning effects. There are IQ issues,” Zivny says.
Those health effects became concerning for Rev. Leroy Adams, Jr., the senior pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church.
In February, his congregation held a bottled water drive for residents living in Flint, Michigan, where lead had leached into their water supply.
Adams says the church collected enough donations to fill a semi-trailer truck.
From that experience, the pastor says a movement developed to have Omaha residents look into their own backyards. The church held a symposium in March where several agencies participated in a panel discussion including the city of Omaha, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance.
“I just felt like we shouldn't let this be idled,” Adams says. “This is [not] just happening in Flint. Yeah, we got some issues here, too.”
In Flint, the lead contamination was in the water.
The city changed its water suppliers and was either not properly or aggressively treated so it leached the lead out of the service lines and contaminated the water, Zivny says.
However, Zivny says Omaha is not not seeing lead in the water, but elsewhere.
Lead traces either came from the ASARCO lead smelter plant, once located at 5th and Douglas streets along the Missouri River. The plant put so much lead into the air and ground that much of east Omaha was declared a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Between the late 1800s and 1930s, Zivny claims the lead emissions from the plant were at its highest.
“That's when lead emissions went into the air,” he says. “The prevailing winds carried it around and then it settled in the yards of north and south Omaha.”
Or, traces of the element were found in lead-based paints used on older homes.
The symposium aimed to address the history of lead in the city and concerns from members of the congregation, like Clark, and the public alike.
After attending the symposium, Clark had her home tested by Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance.
“They did testing on the window sill as well as a couple of baseboards in the house and just did a quick interview with me about the history of the home,” she says.
Clark says – much to her relief – the results showed there were low-levels of lead and did not require any action.
Now, she is urging others to do the same.
“Just get it done, just call Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, call the city – city planning,” Clark says. “Get your house tested. It only takes a few minutes to get it tested and it will be a great burden off of you.”
Adams says organizers are currently planning for the next symposium which will be held June 27 in south Omaha.