Indiana State University Newsroom

Terre Haute’s poorest residents at highest risk for lead poisoning

June 30, 2014

Given the city’s manufacturing history, most people expect lead to be in Terre Haute’s soil, but they might be surprised to hear about the high levels discovered by an Indiana State student.

For her master’s thesis, Heather Foxx set out to understand the spatial distribution of lead throughout the metropolitan area and based on sample locations, predict areas at higher risk for childhood lead poisoning. Using a handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer, Foxx tested the soil at parks, playgrounds and residences.

“Terre Haute is a good candidate for this research, because it has a lot of former industrial areas, a lot of railway systems, historic roads and pre-1950s homes. All of these things are good potential for lead in the soil,” she said.

Foxx discovered a correlation between lead levels, household income and a home’s age — with the highest concentrations generally being in areas where residents have the least resources.

“The poor neighborhoods are in the old neighborhoods, and the old neighborhoods have the lead paint,” Foxx said. “They have these older homes, but they don’t have the money to get rid of the lead-based paint and in turn get rid of the lead in their soil.”

Children younger than age five are at the greatest risk for the effects of lead poisoning, which can cause irreversible developmental delays and impair nutrient absorption — or in very high amounts, death.   

“A lot of researchers say any kind of exposure to lead can have a bad effect on a child,” said Foxx, who is pursuing a career in government or environmental consulting. “We wanted to try to educate parents, so they can be aware of it and prevent exposure — educate them and let them know it’s an issue.”

Children can be exposed by inhaling dust from the yard, eating the contaminated dirt or ingesting produce that hasn’t been thoroughly cleaned, Foxx said.

“Terre Haute children continue to test positive for lead poisoning, but unfortunately, only a small percentage of the children in the county are tested, suggesting there may be many more children who should receive medical intervention,” said Jennifer Latimer, associate professor of geology at Indiana State. “The value of this research is that it identifies areas within the city that may have greater risks of lead poisoning from exposure to contaminated soil. These areas can be targeted for outreach efforts focused on preventing childhood lead poisoning, safe urban gardening and simple steps to reduce exposure.”

The Vigo County Health Department provides free blood lead testing for children younger than age 5.

“The difficult thing is you can’t say they have (Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder), they must be exposed to lead. You can’t make that kind of association,” said Foxx, who has an internship with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s water quality office. She is collecting and analyzing water samples throughout the state.

As a service to the community, the Biogeochemistry Laboratory will continue to provide free soil lead testing.

“Working with Steve Aldrich, Heather was able to use geostatistics to identify neighborhoods and populations within Terre Haute that are at risk for childhood lead poisoning. This is an important issue of environmental justice,” Latimer said. “Along with other efforts on campus, for example, the work Esther Acree does with nursing students focused on childhood lead testing, these projects demonstrate how Indiana State can have a positive impact on the children in this community.”

The following organizations helped fund or support Foxx’s research: Indiana State University, Institute for Community Sustainability at Indiana State, Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State, College of Graduate and Professional Studies at Indiana State, University Research Committee at Indiana State, Geological Society of America, Indiana Geographic Information Council and Indiana Space Grant Consortium.


Photos: – Student researcher Heather Foxx, left, holds a handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer while she tests the soil at the community garden at Indiana State’s Institute for Community Sustainability. -- Student researcher Heather Foxx, center, uses a handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer to test the soil at the community garden at Indiana State’s Institute for Community Sustainability.

Contact: Jennifer Latimer, associate professor of geology, Indiana State University, 812-237-2254 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or