City Hall: Lead Prevention with a Creative Petition

A sign outside the Fundred Mint on Arch Street.

In an effort to rid urban environments of harmful lead contamination in soil, artist Mel Chin began “Operation Paydirt”.  Chin’s project  utilizes a method called “mineral stabilization” to neutralize the hazards of the harmful substance. Operation Paydirt was inspired by Chin’s 2006 visit to New Orleans, devastaged by Hurricane Katrina a year earlier.

“I was flooded by this terrible insecurity that being an artist was not enough to deal with the tragedy before me,” Chin said.

Philadelphia is a focus of Chin’s “Operation Paydirt” project — a city where lead contamination problems are particularly pronounced.

“Most of the soil in Philadelphia is contaminated with lead,” said Joseph Kauffman, the lead housing control program manager at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “It’s especially high in areas with a lot of traffic, like Roosevelt Boulevard.”

Nationwide in 2008, approximately 250,000 children from ages one to five years old had blood-lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, according to the federal Center of Disease Control and Prevention. Blood with this level of lead is that point where the CDC recommends that public health initiatives be activated.

A sign outside the Fundred Mint on Arch Street.

Artist Chin, combining creativity and community, created an initiative to financially support “Paydirt” known as “Fundred Dollar Bill Project.” to financially support Operation Paydirt. With this funding initiative students, senior citizens and everyone in between are invited to design and decorate their own dollar-type bill.  Eventually, these specially crafted bills will be collected by a vegetable oil powered armored truck and will be taken to the U.S. Congress, in hopes that body will exchange three million Fundreds for the $300-million Chin estimates that effective implementation of “Paydirt” will cost.

Consider the Fundreds an unconventional approach of petitioning the government.

“Human expression has tremendous value, and should be exchanged for something more.” Chin said. “It’s trading creativity for change.”

Philadelphia has its own Fundred Mint on Arch Street near 12th in Center City.  Opened this past April, the Fundred project’s theme in the city is “The Uncommon Wealth by the People of Philadelphia.” This special purpose mint is being hosted by the Fabric Museum and Workshop located nearby .

The façade of the building housing Chin’s Mint is designed to resemble the Federal Reserve, complete with a fake life-size safe door that is guarded by two shovel-tipped gun-wielding sentries who are more likely to discuss the program’s mission with passerby than to warn them away with their “weapons”.

Inside the building, a short video plays on a continuous loop. Mel Chin is projected against a white wall, explaining his passion for this endeavor. Students that have participated in other city’s Fundred ventures narrate their experiences.
Photo Courtesy of The Center of Disease Control and Prevention

And in the room next door is an expansive wall, covered in a rainbow’s assortment of Fundred dollar bills.  The goal for the city of Philadelphia is 100,000 Fundreds.  Thus far, over 4,000 have been collected through school programs, visitors to this Mint and just curious passersby.

A 27-and-a-half-foot-long minting table lines the wall opposite to the displayed Fundreds. Standing on legs carved to invoke famous Philadelphian furniture designs, the table holds quill pens, markers and thumbtacks- all the necessary supplies for creating a Fundred.

According to a study published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, when elevated blood-lead levels exceed 10 percent in children, the development of the frontal cortex slows down, which can cause attention and memory-related problems.  It impairs visual-motor functions, causes loss of auditory memory, poor perceptual integration, poor classroom behavior and impaired reaction time.

Some reports suggest that high blood-lead levels can make children more aggressive and a study based at the University of Pittsburgh shows high levels also lead to criminal behavior.

“Exposure to lead, at doses below those which bring children to medical attention, is associated with increased aggression, disturbed attention and delinquency,” wrote Dr. Herbert Needleman, the author of the study. “A meaningful strategy to reduce crime is to eliminate lead from the environment of children.”

Out of 40,000 children tested in Philadelphia below the age of six, nearly one in five had elevated blood-lead levels above 10 percent. Levels higher than 20 percent are toxic enough to severely impair development.  There were 135 children that tested at this level in the city.

A 2010 study published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine found that lead exposure was most prominent in the soil, especially in urban neighborhoods with lead painted homes.

A small portion of the money wall inside the exhibit.

Although lead in house paint was banned in the early 1970’s, it didn’t change the fact that many houses were already painted with lead-based products. Hundreds of homes in the Philadelphia area contain lead paint, and renovations to the houses actually make the problem worse because the paint is often sanded off, which makes it more easily absorbed into the soil.

Out of the 554 properties inspected in 2008, 531 still contained lead paint, said Philadelphia lead control manager Joseph Kauffman.

Children in older urban neighborhoods such as Philadelphia are at a high risk, as they have much more frequent contact with the lead dust derived from inner-city soils. Philadelphia is one of the most lead contaminated cities in the U.S., according to the CDC. Therefore, Mel Chin believes it is up to the children to enact change.

“It will be the voices of the children.” Chin said. “They cannot represent themselves politically, they can’t vote. But they can express themselves. They are the most affected by lead, and they have a right to have some expression in this.”


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