Living with lead

Living with lead

(Margaret Luzier / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Related Topics:
Green Living, Past Storyfest Entries, Public Health, Water

Every parent’s worst nightmare is subjecting their children to unnecessary harm. Unfortunately, we cannot always be so certain of the harmful things hurting our children. Some substances, such as lead, can go virtually undetected, silently harming your loved ones. This is the very harsh reality for residents of Warren County, Pennsylvania. Since 2005, Reuters has reported that there have been extremely high blood lead levels in the children of Warren County (Reuters, 2016). This is very alarming because lead is harmful in any amount, especially for children (CDC, 2016). The CDC reports that no safe blood lead level has been found for children, and they report any findings of more than 5 micrograms per deciliter as being high (CDC, 2016). Unfortunately, lead exposure has no obvious symptoms and can go unnoticed for years (CDC, 2016). The CDC reports that there are currently more than 4 million U.S. households with children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead, and there are currently more than half a million U.S. children with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (CDC, 2016).

Warren County is home to 41,885 people as of 2013 (Town Charts, 2013). Of that population, roughly 26% is under the age of 24 (Town Charts, 2013). The poverty rate of the county is 14.1%, whereas the state poverty rate is 13.6% (Town Charts, 2014). As of 2012, the child poverty rate was 46.1% of children living at 185% or below the federal poverty level (Town Charts, 2012). This is a poor, rural community, not unlike many others across the nation, that is battling this lead issue. One in five children under the age of seven has tested positively for elevated blood lead levels (Aupperlee, 2016). Comparing this to Flint, Michigan, Warren County has elevated lead levels at rates that are twice as high (Aupperlee, 2016). Certain portions of Warren County have rates as high as 36% of children that have elevated lead levels (Aupperlee, 2016). Lead exposure has been known to cause many developmental issues and can seriously harm children’s health. According to the CDC, “millions of children are being exposed to lead in their homes, increasing their risks for damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems (e.g., reduced IQ, ADHD, juvenile delinquency, and criminal behavior), and hearing and speech problems” (CDC, 2016). In Warren County, 8.9% of babies are born with a low birth rate which could potentially be linked to the high rates of blood lead levels (Town Charts, 2014). Though the future of this community seems bleak, there have been recent advances in science and technology that could possibly save Warren and the many communities that are also adversely affected by lead.

Recently, researchers have developed a new “green” foam that cleans water of up to 99% of mercury and lead ions if placed in the water for roughly 30 hours (Chavan et al, 2016). This new foam utilizes used coffee grounds and reduces wastes while also cleaning water. The coffee grounds have been incorporated into a foam filter that can be used in a few different ways. It can be used as a block that sits in a container of water, and after around 30 hours, the lead and mercury ions will be greatly reduced and the water can potentially be used for drinking and cooking purposes (Chavan et al, 2016). The foam filter can also be used as an actual filter that water is pumped through. When used in this way, it has been shown to remove up to 67% of the lead and mercury ions (Chavan et al, 2016). This is an innovative and fairly cost effective solution to scrubbing the water of harmful ions. It incorporates used coffee grounds that would otherwise be thrown out, so it also is reducing wastes that are entering landfills (Chavan et al, 2016). This new coffee infused foam could be the innovative solution that many communities across the nation, including both Warren County and Flint, Michigan, have been waiting for. These communities need a cost effective solution quickly to help stop further harm to the members of these afflicted areas.


Aupperlee, A. (2016, February 11). Lead pipes in home plumbing a worry in Western Pa. Retrieved February 16, 2017, from

Chavan, A. A., Pinto, J., Liakos, I., Bayer, I. S., Lauciello, S., Athanassiou, A., & Fragouli, D. (2016). Spent Coffee Bioelastomeric Composite Foams for the Removal of Pb2 and Hg2 from Water. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, 4(10), 5495-5502. doi:10.1021/acssuschemeng.6b01098

CDC Childhood Lead Poisoning Data, Statistics, and Surveillance. (2016, September 01). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from

Reuters finds lead levels higher than Flint’s in thousands of locales. (2016, December 19). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from

Warren County PA Demographics data. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2017, from


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