Dominican Republic – Bajos de Haina Abandoned Lead Smelter
- Direct contact
- Ministry of Environment in the Dominican Republic
- Inter-American Development Bank
- University of Santo Domingo
- TerraGraphics Environmental Engineering, Inc
- Hunter College, City University of New York
An abandoned lead smelter left a wide area of lead contamination across the local community. Community education campaigns implemented over a number of years resulted in a significant decline in blood lead levels. However, the most significant improvements resulted from physical removal or burial of contaminated material and conversion of the main site into a baseball field and recreational area. Following this cleanup, blood lead levels have now decreased to acceptable levels.
Haina, also known as Bajos de Haina, has been referred to as the ‘Dominican Chernobyl’. A community near an abandoned lead-acid battery recycling smelter, nearly its entire population shows signs of lead poisoning. In 2000, the Dominican Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources identified Haina as a national hotspot of significant concern.
According to the United Nations, the population of Haina was considered to have the highest level of lead contamination in the world, and its entire population carries indications of lead poisoning.
The site and surrounding area was the scene of severe lead poisoning in the 1990ʼs. In March 1997, 116 children were surveyed, and again in August 1997, 146 children were surveyed. Mean blood lead concentrations were 71 µg/dL (range: 9–234 µg/dL) in March and 32 µg/dL (range: 6–130 µg/dL) in August.
The study revealed that at least 28% of the children required immediate treatment and 5% had lead levels >79 µg/dL, putting them at risk for severe neurologic sequelae at the time of the study. In the U.S., the EPA and CDC action level for blood lead concentration is 10 µg/dl. However, studies have found neurobehavioral impairment in children with blood levels below 10 µg/dl. Over 90% of Haina’s residents were found to have elevated blood lead levels.
The health effects of lead poisoning are both acute and chronic and are particularly severe on children. These effects include: Neurological damage, reduced IQ, anemia, nerve disorders, muscle and joint pain, loss of memory and concentration, infertility, increased blood pressure and chronic headaches and weakness. At high concentrations lead poisoning can cause death.
Further testing by Blacksmith Insitute staff continued to show elevated blood lead levels in the community despite the discontinuation of smelting activities at the plant:
|Average BLL concentration
With these high levels of lead in the community, action needed to be taken to remove the contaminated material and educate the community on the health risks of lead.
Solution – Stakeholder Group and Public Health Education
The first steps in the process were to form a stakeholder group including all of the relevant parties – community members, government officials, local NGOs, and bring them together to discuss the problem and formulate a plan of action.
Blacksmith staff also conducted education workshops for local children to help minimize their exposure to lead dust and materials, and continued with blood lead level testing and monitoring.
Remediation of Contaminated Soils
Technical experts from the United States and the Dominican Republic surveyed the site and developed a remediation plan for safely removing the contaminated soils and materials.
Between December 2008 and March 2009 Blacksmith and Terragraphics, Inc. coordinated the removal of over 6,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil from the site and transferred it to a specially constructed and lined pit at a nearby industrial estate. The site is now being re-graded to become a local park.
The health threat to the children and adults of the community of Haina has been greatly reduced by this project, but more work remains to be done.
In March, 1997 surveys showed that the average degree of lead poisoning in children was 71 µg/dL, putting them at severe risk of neurological damage. Although activities at the plant responsible for the contamination were discontinued, lead concentrations in the bloodstream of the children remained extremely high. After over 6,000 cubic meters of polluted soil were removed from the site (2008-9), the levels dropped significantly.